(Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2015)
Before Handel and before Bononcini there was Cavalli. This first take on the Xerxes story doesn’t enjoy anywhere near as much fame as its younger cousin, and to my knowledge has only been recorded once, in 1985, with the title role set for countertenor and sung by René Jacobs. It’s high time for another recording and, if Emmanuelle Haïm and her excellent cast could have their arms twisted to do it, we’d be in for a treat.
The team, plus the Concert d’Astrée, came to Vienna fresh from their success with a fully staged version in Lille* and we the audience benefitted hugely from that. It was billed as a concert performance but in the end was performed staged, on a shallow set with just a few black blocks to represent trees, chairs and anything else needed by the story. This was absolutely perfect because there was nothing to distract from the excellent quality of the music and the very, very fine singing. The Lille version also included a sequence of ballets written by Lully to supplement Cavalli’s opera when it was performed at the wedding celebrations of Louis XIV in 1660 (Cavalli was meant to write a new opera, but it wasn’t finished in time and so Xerse was put on instead: it was already a hit and just needed a bit of tweaking for French courtly tastes). The version we saw in Vienna, by contrast, was sans ballets: pure Cavalli. And pure delight.
Xerxes has a reputation for being an opera about a terribly volatile, unstable figure; but it turns out that’s only the case with Handel. The original libretto by Nicolò Minato for Cavalli’s Xerse presents a rather different view of the characters: more nuanced and much more sympathetic. Here Xerse (in an attractive performance by Ugo Guagliardo) comes across as largely genial and sane, albeit with a weakness for pretty girls. He’s easy-going, it seems, because he can’t quite believe anyone could resist him. He loses his temper on a couple of occasions, in the face of his stroppy brother Arsamene (Tim Mead) and when Romilda (Emöke Barath) stretches his patience just that bit too far.
But for the most part he’s a warm character, bantering with his sidekick Eumene (Emiliano Gonzalez Toro; the character is described in the cast list as ‘Xerses Lieblingseunuch’, which made me giggle). And, when he finally has to give up hope on Romilda, he doesn’t throw things around and have a tantrum; instead he goes off alone and, in Lasciatemi morir stelle, spietate, begs the cruel stars to let him die of misery. It makes you realise how much the popular notion of Xerxes as a historical figure rests on Stampiglia’s reworked, more sensationalist later libretto. There’s one drawback to a sane Xerse, of course. We don’t get equivalents of the flashy rage arias that I love so much; but Minato’s libretto makes for a more dramatically satisfying story overall and there’s so much beautiful music that I almost didn’t miss Crude furie.
Eumene is one of two servant figures who don’t appear in the Handel opera: Arsamene’s manservant Elviro is the only one who survives into 1738 and, even in Handel’s version, his comic scenes betray his origins in the older form of opera, where comedy and seriousness sat side by side more naturally. (The flower-seller scene, of course, is pure 17th-century humour, but Xerse differs in feel from many of Cavalli’s other operas: there isn’t quite the same kind of robust sexual humour that you find elsewhere.) Having the three servants, one for each of the main royal characters, helps to enrich the plot. Eumene, for example, offers someone for Xerse to talk to and the king becomes more human and relatable as we see him joking with his sidekick, and even singing a witty little duet on the ferocious power of Cupid (nothing like the singing contest in Poppea, in case you’re wondering). Eumene also acts as a messenger, carrying gifts to the reluctant Romilda and commenting wryly on the situation.
Amastre, too, has a companion: her long-suffering tutor Aristone. He’s had to hot-foot it after his headstrong charge, who’s scarpered from Aracca, the safe-haven to which her father had dispatched her during the war. Like Xerse, Amastre benefits from having someone to talk to, and I think it’s significant that in most Handel productions she’s given a mute companion. She needs someone there, and there are points in Handel where you can tell that someone else should be with her: that whole scene where she exclaims, ‘Tu menti!’ for example, doesn’t really work once Aristone is excised. I think in the full Minato libretto there must also have been the conventional prologue with allegorical figures, but that was cut here (and was no great loss). I’m not sure whether the famous episode of the bridge was also cut, or whether it was only added by Stampiglia, but its absence also helps to minimise the notion of Xerse as a hubristic madman.
Every single one of the cast was on great form, although of course I came away with a little portfolio of particular favourites. One of them was Guagliardo himself, whose dignity and vocal dexterity made me think that Xerxes actually sounds really good as a bass. His voice wasn’t just beautifully rich but it was also full of emotion and I’ll be tracking down some of his recordings. The three ladies were all strong: Emöke Barath’s voice was enchanting from the moment you first heard her Romilda off-stage singing O voi che penate. Her bright, supple soprano took all the quirks and ornamentations of the music in its stride and she was never anything less than a delight to listen to. Although applause seemed to be discouraged during the performance, her forlorn Che barbara pietà elicited a rebellious patter of clapping. Emmanuelle de Negri gave Amastre all the requisite feistiness – sometimes she’s physically restrained by Aristone – while maintaining a core of vulnerability, expressed most memorably through her Morirò: volete più which leads into the Gran pena è gelosia duet with Xerse (the latter made it into Handel; the former didn’t. Perhaps Stampiglia felt that too many characters were languishing around wanting to die). Her aria Voi mi dite che non l’ami, just before the interval, was absolutely gorgeous, with hints of Pur ti miro about the melody. And she becomes a poignant third interlocutor in Romilda’s and Arsamene’s romantic duet M’amarete, in which she echoes Romilda’s ‘beata‘ with a mournful ‘dannata‘.
To briefly mention a couple of the other singers, I was happy to see Emiliano Gonzalez Toro live at last (having previously seen him in Elena and Poppea), playing a lighter-hearted role with his customary élan; and Tim Mead made a dapper Arsamene, although perhaps slightly more sullen and petulant than I’m used to (maybe it’s just because I’ve recently seen him in Poppea, but I thought this Arsamene had shades of Ottone about him).Camille Poul’s Adelanta benefitted greatly from Minato’s more rounded writing of the character. It makes you realise how Stampiglia chips away at her characterisation, turning her into a hopeless flirt whose one big number is devoted to the arts of attracting a man. None of that in Minato and Cavalli, where she becomes an almost tragic figure: confused and jealous but not the eyelash-batting meddler of Handel. She’s just a girl who has the misfortune to be hopelessly in love with the wrong man.
But perhaps the greatest revelation of the night was a character for whom I usually don’t care much at all: Ariodate, sung stupendously by Carlo Allemano. In Handel, Ariodate is little but a blundering comedy figure, and even in Cavalli it’s hinted that he’s got a bit too much bluster about him; but Cavalli gives him some really classy music. Heralded by horns and drums, he has the best entrance in the opera and he swings straight into the show-stealing Già la tromba, which is the kind of epic swagger-fest that you might expect to hear seventy years later, but not in this period. Quite frankly, it was brilliant. Vocally Allemano played off well against Guagliardo’s bass in their later scenes together and, visually, too, he fitted the bill. Give him Persian robes to go with that flowing hair and weathered profile and he could well be Xerxes’ real-life general Ariomandes, straight off one of the Persepolis reliefs.
To me Xerse felt like more of a halfway house than the other Cavalli operas I’ve seen: it seemed to lie halfway between Monteverdi’s sung ‘dramas’ and the full-on blaze of showy opera seria. Already the music is more elaborate than Monteverdi’s and the characters have pieces of music which feel more like arias than the monologues which we get in Poppea, for example. It is a very satisfying piece of work: there are some exquisite melodies and we were lucky enough to hear them tackled by voices which brought out all their delicacy and colour.
All in all it was a marvellous evening. We’d booked this as a bit of an ‘extra’ to Poppea, and I for one expected nothing more than a musical curiosity, primarily interesting for what it told me about the later Handel version of the opera. And yet it turned out to be an elegant, compelling and thoroughly enjoyable production – quite possibly the highlight of my trip. I can hope for a CD recording can’t I?
* For a glimpse of the Lille version, complete with – slightly odd – ballets, see a short video here. Amusingly it turns out that here Xerse doesn’t sing Ombra mai fu beneath a tree, but instead beneath the towering, roped-up figure of the Nike of Samothrace – rather clever as a way of symbolising a man who’s determined to conquer Greece…