San Francisco Opera makes old Persian tale 'Xerxes' fresh

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

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.

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,

artsentertainmentPatrick SummersSan Francisco Opera

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Demonstrators commemorated the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside S.F. City Hall on June 1, 2020.<ins></ins>
Chauvin verdict: SF reacts after jury finds ex-officer guilty on all charges

San Franciscans were relieved Tuesday after jurors found a former Minneapolis police… Continue reading

San Francisco Unified School District Board member Faauuga Moliga, right, pictured with Superintendent Vincent Matthews on the first day back to classrooms, will be board vice president for the remander of the 2121 term. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Faauuga Moliga named as school board vice president to replace Alison Collins

The San Francisco school board on Tuesday selected board member Fauuga Moliga… Continue reading

Legislation by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman would require The City to add enough new safe camping sites, such as this one at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin, to accomodate everyone living on the street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
City would create sites for hundreds of tents under new homeless shelter proposal

Advocates say funding better spent on permanent housing

An instructor at Sava Pool teaches children drowning prevention techniques. (Jordi Molina/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Indoor city pools reopen for lap swimming and safety classes

Two of San Francisco’s indoor city pools reopened Tuesday, marking another step… Continue reading

A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel as work continues at West Portal Station on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA’s poor track record on capital projects risks losing ‘public trust’

Supervisors say cost overruns and delays could jeapordize future ballot revenue measures

Most Read