Xerse: Francesco Cavalli (1654)

Cavalli: Xerse

★★★★★

(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.

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Blood of Kings: Andrew James

★★½

 A Novel of Betrayal and Warfare in Ancient Persia

There isn’t much historical fiction out there about Achaemenid Persia. Trust me: I’ve looked. There’s the Athenian Letters, written by a group of friends as a commentary on Thucydides around 1740 (effectively early fan-fiction), and there are a few novels about Esther aimed at a religious readership; but that’s pretty much it.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Xerxes: Handel

★★★★

(Les Talens Lyriques, with Christophe Rousset, Dresden, 2000)

You might remember that Xerxes at the ENO was the first opera I saw after the Baroque revelations of the summer and, although there was much to enjoy in that production, I itched to hear it performed in the original Italian. There isn’t a huge amount of choice on DVD at the moment so I ended up with this 2000 performance from Dresden. I held off watching it for a while, as it had an entirely female cast of principals and a visual aesthetic which looked bleak, to say the least. Then, one day I happened to see a clip of the opening scene on YouTube. Paula Rasmussen’s Ombra mai fù stopped me in my tracks.

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The King and the Slave: Tim Leach

½

When I finished Tim Leach’s debut novel, The Last King of Lydia, I was deeply impressed by the way he’d transformed a story from Herodotus into an elegant and beautifully-written meditation on fortune and happiness. Little did I guess that I’d have the pleasure of reading another of his books so soon (and a sequel no less!), returning to the sumptuous might of the Persian empire in the 6th century BC.

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Artaserse: Leonardo Vinci (1730)

Vinci: Artaserse

★★★★★

(with I Barocchisti [CD] and Concerto Köln [DVD], directed by Diego Fasolis, 2012)

Before we start, I should emphasise: the composer is not the artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), but a completely different person, the Neapolitan Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730). I must also add a disclaimer. As you may remember, I know nothing about the technicalities of music. In this field I am, more than ever, merely an enthusiastic amateur. That’s especially the case in Baroque music, which must be one of the most technically complex and elaborate areas of classical music. However, as I’ve said before, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of the castrati and, as such, this particular opera (and performance) was one I couldn’t resist.

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Gates of Fire: Steven Pressfield

★★★★

Before I begin, a note of warning: this post assumes that you’re familiar with the outcome of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. I’m leaping to the conclusion that, if you haven’t already read this book, you’ll probably have seen the film 300 or come across this stirring story in a history book or documentary. If you don’t know what happened, then my recommendation would be to simply buy this book and plunge in: don’t read any further, and don’t go looking up anything on Wikipedia. It’ll be even more dazzling and gut-wrenching if you don’t know what to expect.

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The Last King of Lydia: Tim Leach

★★★★

It is just before dawn one morning in 547 BC. The Lydian king Croesus is taken from a cell in his capital, Sardis, and led to a great wooden pyre where he is to be burned to death in the presence of his conqueror, the Persian king Cyrus. As the smoke begins to curl around him and the fire’s first heat warms the soles of his feet, Croesus remembers a conversation he had, many years before, with the Athenian statesman Solon. They had argued about happiness.

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