San Francisco Opera makes old Persian tale 'Xerxes' fresh

Susan Graham and David Daniels of San Francisco Opera in a file photo. (Courtesy photo)

Everything is old about Handel’s “Xerxes”: The Persian king and conqueror lived in the fifth century B.C., the opera was written in 1738, the English production onstage at War Memorial Opera House is from 1985 — and yet the San Francisco Opera production, which premiered Sunday, feels fresh and new.

Musically, it’s a grand-slam winner, with a brilliant cast: Susan Graham (Xerxes), David Daniels (Arsamenes), Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), Heidi Stober (Atalanta) in the top rank, closely followed by Sonia Prina (Amastris), Michael Sumuel (Elviro) and Wayne Tigges (Ariodates).

Vocalists, well-balanced and without ego, gave all-around outstanding performances in a true ensemble event – even if the opera is a nonstop series of arias, originally a showcase for London’s most famous castrati. The acting also was uniformly natural, thanks in part to director Michael Walling.

Among minor, needless initial problems Sunday were Graham’s affecting “Ombra mai fu (in praise of the shade of his beloved plane tree)” misdirected to be sung upstage instead of near the downstage sweet spot, and Oropesa singing her first aria surrounded by supernumeraries, virtually unseen by the audience.

Still, three hours went by virtually without a hitch.

Under Patrick Summers’ steady direction, verging on mechanical only a few times, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra played superbly, with principal trumpet Adam Luftman providing a triumphant sound.

Summers, who has been responsible for excellent Baroque opera productions in the War Memorial and elsewhere, is masterful in the genre. Still, the beautiful, mostly unfamiliar, music may not hold the attention of opera newbies for an entire afternoon or evening.

Nicholas Hytner’s English National Opera production, with David Fielding’s design, helped move along what is more an oratorio than an opera, investing it with clever, at times very funny, bits. In the garden party setting, supernumeraries, looking like ghosts or powder-faced lackeys, acted as entertaining stagehands, rarely stepping on the music.

During the overture, characters entered the stage, one by one as a large sign on the back curtain identified them and their amorous interests.

Even after the thoughtful documentation, the relationships rival those in “Desperate Housewives”: As Xerxes pursues Romilda, she is after Arsamenes (the king’s brother), but so is her sister, Atalanta … and then there is Amastris, enamored of Xerxes, but dressed as warrior. (The opera says nothing of Xerxes’ other deeds, including a failed invasion of Greece with 1,200 fighting vessels and troops from 46 nations.)

Among the opera’s inventive set elements is an elaborate model of Xerxes’ first Hellespont bridge, its onstage collapse mirroring a bizarre historical incident.

When the flax-and-papyrus bridge broke down over the Dardanelles, mad king Xerxes executed the architects, and ordered the straits punished by lashing the water 300 times and branding it with hot irons. This and other chapters from Xerxes’ crazy and heroic history might have made a more lively opera than his confused love life.

Xerxes
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4, Nov. 8, Nov. 11, Nov. 19; 7 p.m. Nov. 16
Tickets: $29 to $330
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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