Review: An Elegantly Performed Glimmerglass Festival “Xerxes” – July 15, 2017

Under the leadership of Conductor Nicole Paiement, an elegantly performed, beautifully sung performance of Handel’s late career masterpiece, “Xerxes” was presented by seven young Glimmerglass Festival artists.

Handel’s charming work provided opportunities for the seven young American artists to demonstrate their mastery of Handel’s story-telling recitative, soulful legato passages and florid vocal ornamentation in Handel’s succession of finely-crafted melodies.

John Holiday Jr’s Xerxes

Texas counter-tenor John Holiday, Jr. brought luxurious sound to the opera’s title role.  Holiday displayed a high voice of warmth and beauty throughout his performance, beginning with the opera’s first aria Ombra mai fu, one of the most famous of Handel’s operatic pieces.

Holiday drew an audience ovation in appreciation for his mastery of the coloratura fireworks of Crude furie degl’orridi abissi.

I had first praised a Holiday performance, when he played the Sorceress another 18th century opera, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” [See Review: Barrie Kosky’s Spirited “Dido and Aeneas” Arrives at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014.]

Two summers ago, Holiday had become a Glimmerglass Festival favorite in his remarkable portrait of Julius Caesar in the Glimmerglass Festival’s presentation of a Vivaldi rarity. [See Review: Ovations for John Holiday’s Cesare in American Premiere of Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2015.]

[Below: John Holiday as Xerxes; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Allegra De Vita’s Arsamenes

Connecticut mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita performed the role of Xerxes’ brother (and rival for the hand of the beautiful Romilda).

De Vita, another veteran of the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival’s Vivaldi opera, displayed admirable technique and a secure appreciation for the baroque style of singing. She proved a convincing Arsamenes, one of Handel’s great “high voice” roles.

[Below: Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes; edited image of a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

De Vita’s has proven the ability to sing not only Handel and Vivaldi but also the classical ornamentation of Rossini’s operas.

Last season, De Vita showed her mastery of yet another challenging classical vocal style, as Pippa in Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” [See Review: Gilmore, Angelini, Ngqungwana Take Flight in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 7, 2016.]

Emily Pogorelc’s Romilda

Wisconsin coloratura soprano Emily Pogorelc was Romilda, the opera’s lead female role, which she performed with distinction.

In the opera’s slight plot, Romilda and Arsamenes love each other, a pairing that is actively opposed or supported by each of the opera’s other characters. Often accompanied by flute, as in the charming aria Va Godendo Vezzoso e Bello, Pogorelc evoked audience sympathy with a emotionally expressive, vocally solid performance.

[Below: Emily Pogorelc as Romilda; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Pogorelc’s Romilda was a change of pace from last year’s assignment of Johanna in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” [Review: Greer Grimsley Stars in Christopher Alden’s Staging of “Sweeney Todd” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 4, 2016.]

Abigail Dock’s Amastris

Mezzo-soprano Abigail Dock made a strong impression as Amastris, a princess who had been promised to Xerxes in a dynastic marriage, which Xerxes has resisted, so that Amastris disguised herself as a man to gather intelligence about Xerxes’ amorous activities.

Dock was particularly effective in the opera’s final moments, in her confrontation with Holiday’s Xerxes that ultimately won his sympathy.

[Below: Angela Dock as Amastris; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Katrina Galka’s Atalanta

Wisconsin soprano Katrina Galka gave a lively performance as Romilda’s mischievous sister Atalanta (who wishes to break up Romilda and Arsamenes so she can have the latter for herself).

Galka persuasively projected the schemes of a woman who wishes to be married to a “royal”, despite having no particular attachment to either of the royal brothers.

[Below: Katrina Galka as Atalanta; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Calvin Griffin’s Elviro

Arsamenes’ vivacious servant, Elviro, played by Ohio bass-baritone Calvin Griffin, is the character whose main assignment is to provide comic relief. A gifted performer and natural comedian, his bright-sounding bass-baritone made a strong impression.

[Below: Calvin Griffin as Elviro; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Brent Michael Smith’s Ariodates

Romilda’s father Ariodates was played by Michigan bass Brent Michael Smith. Ariodates is an upwardly mobile general, and a father who delights in the idea of a daughter marrying a prince. By taking an obscure order by Xerxes literally he propels the action towards a felicitous denouement.

Brent Michael Smith clearly understands what it takes to be a successful Ariodates – a deep, mellifluous voice is a prerequisite, but he needs also needs to convey amazement at how through his misunderstanding of a royal order he could have changed the dynamics of the drama. It’s hard to imagine how one could perform the role better than Smith did.

[Below: Brent Michael Smith as Ariodates; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Maestra Nicole Paiement and the Musical Performance

Conductor Nicole Paiement skillfully led the Glimmerglass Festival orchestra augmented by several baroque instruments appropriate to performing Handel’s music.

Although Maestra Paiement is closely associated with 20th and 21st century works, including a revival of Ward’s “The Crucible” for her Glimmerglass Festival debut, Paiement’s academic preparation included a doctoral dissertation on Handel’s musical and dramatic style.

That seven young singers performed the opera so effectively reflects favorably on Paiement’s musical preparation and conducting.

[Below: the finale to Handel’s “Xerxes”, starring, from left to right, Katrina Galka as Atalanta, Emily Pogorelc as Romilda, Calvin Griffin as Elviro, John Holiday as Xerxes, Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes, Brent Michael Smith as Ariodates and Abigail Dock as Amastris; edited image of a Carrington Spires photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Tazewell Thompson’s Direction, John Conklin’s Scenery, Sara Jean Tosetti’s Costumes and Robert Wierzel’s Lighting

Director Tazewell Thompson concentrates on telling the basic story, retaining its inherent humor, but without introducing elements unintended by Handel. That approach is reinforced by John Conklin’s simple sets and a lighting scheme that maintains focus on the interrrelationships of the seven characters (whose attractively costumes are designed by Sara Jean Tosetti.)

The opera “Xerxes” abounds in “tongue-in-cheek” elements, and different productions have handled it different ways, including Sir Nicholas Hytner’s famous production based on the social idiosyncrasies of Handel’s London. That production was seen earlier this decade in Houston [Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010] and San Francisco [Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011 ].

Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend this production of “Xerxes” to all lovers of baroque opera, and for those who are interested in pursuing an introduction to Handel’s opera and the baroque genre.