- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

The Wolf Trap Opera Company opened its all-too-brief run of George Frederick Handel's infrequently-performed "Xerxes" at the Barns last weekend. If you're a baroque enthusiast and have got the stamina, the three-and-one-half hour extravaganza is hands-down one of the most significant productions this hard-working company of up-and-coming singers has ever mounted. It signals a welcome new direction away from the company's standard Mozart and Rossini fare.

"Xerxes" (pronounced SEHR-suh) is one of Handel's stranger efforts. The opera's title character was a renowned Persian king who won his place in history by successfully constructing a pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to attack Greece in the 5th century B.C. But Handel was not much interested in such heroics, building his work instead on the strangely comical goings-on in Xerxes' court. According to Herodotus, Xerxes was mightily attracted to his brother's wife. But he could also be called a charter member of the Green Party, being equally obsessed with his exotic pet tree.

Handel found this kind of fun too good to resist, and built a weird, serio-comic opera of manners around the romantic and botanical fetishes of this powerful, eccentric king. The composer's librettists, Silvio Stampiglia and Niccolo Minato, altered and embellished history, and their Xerxes lusts after brother Arsamene's fiancee Romilda not his wife while spurning his own beloved, the princess Amastre. Eighteenth-century audiences didn't know quite what to make of all this, and the work first performed in 1738 in London was not considered to be one of the composer's greatest hits.

"Xerxes" presents some musical problems for modern audiences not attuned to baroque sensibilities: the era's infatuation with stratospheric male voices, for example. Most baroque opera companies employed boy singers and castrati in key roles, but neither are much available today, with modern boys preferring basketball to opera and castrati entirely out of fashion for some considerable period of time. Nowadays, gender-bending musical mores happily allow women singers to don a pair of trousers to assume these roles.

Additionally, there are still a few male sopranos or "sopranists" around vocalists who can sing an incredibly-refined countertenor or whose voices never changed. These fortuitous circumstances, plus the sheer beauty of Handel's music, have begun to get his once-neglected operas back into the repertoire.

The Wolf Trap Opera's "Xerxes" conjures up a highly original solution to the dilemma of staging the composer's unconventional composition. The single set is white and spare, a kind of solarium or drawing room dropped vaguely into the turn of 20th century. The characters, in turn are outfitted in anything from puffy prom dresses to an aviator's outfit, giving the festivities a weird aura, something like Oscar Wilde meets Homer the ancient Greek poet, not the one in the Simpson's cartoon.

Handel's music itself is a series of party-pieces meant to show off each singer to his or her greatest advantage, and none disappoint. Male soprano Michael Maniaci was sensational as Xerxes. Mr. Maniaci's mercurial monarch ebbs and flows with events not often under his control, and frequently gives vent to his feelings in elaborate extended arias. The most lovely and affecting of these is the famous "Largo" ("Ombra mai fu") that begins the work, where Xerxes bestows lavish praises upon his beloved tree. But Mr. Maniaci also excels in his headlong Act III mad scene where words and music tumble forth in manic profusion. His complex, rapid figures and impossibly saber-clean top notes are breathtaking moments, seemingly produced without effort. In the continuing revival of Handel's operas, Mr. Maniaci has all the makings of a first-rate star.

The rest of the cast supports Mr. Maniaci with near-equal brilliance.

Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi as Xerxes' brother, Arsamene, goes toe-to toe with the haughty monarch in an attempt to beat him to the altar. Her well-supported lower notes are clear and forceful, serving as a charming and effective counterpoint to Mr. Maniaci's delightfully-decadent soprano voice.

As Xerxes' troubled fiancee, Amastre, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala was winsomely winning in her aviator's disguise. Small in stature, her voice is convincing and surprisingly authoritative as she attempts to turn the tide and bring the king back to his senses and Romilda back to Arsamene. As Romilda, soprano Angela Fout who excelled in as Countess Almaviva in last seasons's production of Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro" ("The Marriage of Figaro") does a fine job avoiding marital disaster while deftly delivering Handel's challenging arias, although a few of her vocal figures could have been a bit cleaner.

In the small but important role of Atalanta, Romilda's scheming sister, soprano Miranda Rowe's light, lyric soprano voice proved perfectly-suited to baroque opera, and her sense of comic timing was splendid.

There are two traditional male roles in this opera that give the cast some needed vocal ballast. In the larger of these two roles, Arsamene's servant, Elviro, bass-baritone Kevin Burdette brings buffo to the baroque as he attempts to impose sanity on his wayward superiors. Mr. Burdette's booming voice and impeccable diction are crucial to the endeavor. On the other hand, Mr. Burdette is not afraid to camp it up in a wobbly falsetto in Act II as he prances about the stage disguised as a flower girl. Meanwhile, as the triumphant general Ariodate, father to both Romilda and Atalanta, bass Oren Gradus adds the requisite gravitas to his battlefield hero.

The musical wonders of this Wolf Trap production don't end with its talented young cast. The orchestra, crisply conducted by Gary Thor Wedow, uses period instruments including a hefty arch-lute over four feet in length along with baroque tuning of the strings to lend a more transparent and authentic texture to the accompaniment. Not coincidentally, this unobtrusive instrumental backdrop showcases the singers even better. This one's a winner all around.


****

WHAT: The Wolf Trap Opera's production of George Frederick Handel's "Xerxes"

WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna, Va.

WHEN: Tonight at 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $18-$48

PHONE: General information 703/255-1900; Ticket information 703-255-1860; Ticket purchases 703/218-6500; or visit the Wolf Trap Box Office.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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