Xerxes Bewildered

Since its rediscovery at the Göttingen Festival in 1926, Xerxes has been one of the most performed of Handel’s operas, surpassed only in the number of productions by Giulio Cesare. The opening aria of the piece, Ombra mai fu, is among his most popular, anthologized, arranged, recorded countless times. As an instrumental number, it’s a favorite at weddings camouflaged in bridal white as Handel’s Largo—never mind that though the original tempo marking is Larghetto. Though this warhorse has been ridden far too often into battle, it offers proof that Handel’s music, like that of Bach, can absorb of a range of assaults and retain its freshness, the steed’s white coat still glistening in the shadowy forest the aria text describes.

The reanimation of Handel’s operas, which fell victim to the “reforms” of the late eighteenth-century that sought to moderate the genre’s supposed excesses, was one of the gifts to the twentieth-century stage. In its most recent twenty-first-century reincarnation just premiered at Berlin’s Komische Oper, Xerxes has achieved a sumptuous apotheosis. Indeed, this debauched potentate has never been revived with more verve, intelligence, humor, and joy. From a plush arm chair in his heavenly loge Handel taps his cane in the direction of Berlin with lusty approval.

A theater director charged with bringing this piece to the stage confronts its recent and not-so-recent reception history: he or she must know what other modern productions have done with Xerxes, and must then come up with something new.  Invention and interpretation are at a premium—and just as in Handel’s day, it’s a hugely expensive endeavor.

Also to be faced up to are the expectations of the opera house itself. Berlin’s Comic Opera is market leader in provocation, including but not limited to: an ecumenical approach to sexual gratification; a penchant for violence and stage blood; unapologetic amendment of the text (even the musical one); and a fondness for anachronistic gadgetry (from assault rifles in the Wolf’s Glen to VW campervans in Orlando’s enchanted groves). Such directorial interventions sometimes yield nothing
more than childish annoyance, but they can often be illuminating, bringing valuable new perspectives to the classics. Yet one has to be prepared for a relatively high quotient of collateral silliness.

The miracle of Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s Xerxes is that it makes full use of the creative license the Berlin Comic Opera encourages, but without ever inflicting itself self-indulgently on the music, characters, or audience. The production serves as a showcase for directorial flamboyance, one definition of so-called Regietheater (director’s theater) being that the director, though unseen, effectively becomes the main character. But this Xerxes flourishes precisely because every brilliant inventions, winking aside, unexpected flash of wit is done in the spirit of the composer and his theatrical vision.

In a move that at first glance seems to be diametrically opposed to the Comic Opera’s sometimes bruising modernity, Herheim returns the piece to the ravishing visual delights of the eighteenth-century stage. This engagement with the past is not an academic pursuit, but one that offers endlessly rewarding insights that make the opera’s characters and action spring exuberantly to life. Working with the historically-grounded yet robustly creative talents of set designer, Heike Scheele, Herheim shows how seductive the stagecraft of Handel’s time was and how it can enliven the present. Indeed this eighteenth-century technology can be far more visually arresting than the supposedly realistic computerized effects of the modern cinema. Herheim was trained as a cellist, and his dialogue with the past is driven by a nuanced musicality filled with fantasy, flair, and intelligence.

Already on entering the theater one notices telling historical details. The orchestra pit had been raised so that the musicians were just below the level of the stage just as in they were Handel’s day. This not only improved the theater’s acoustics for the tightly energetic Comic Opera orchestra under the rousing direction of Konrad Junghänel, but was also exploited by Herheim for theatrical purposes, as when the imperious Xerxes pulled rank on Junghänel and invaded the pit to seize control of the orchestra; the potentate was in a foul mood singing “No” to the diplomatic demands love. With a wave of the hand he summarily commanded the orchestra to forego the repeat of the open section of the aria, snuffing out Handel’s gorgeous music with a show of dictatorial contempt. Here was a rare and glittering example of how doing a kind of violence to the actual musical score could support character and action rather than detract from—Xerxes not only overpowering his musical servants in the orchestra, but even Handel himself.

Berlin’s Komische Oper is the only one of the city’s three houses where all operas are sung in German. Yet the evening’s first words, heard in the set-piece Ombra ma fui—like all of Xerxes’ arias sung with monarchic sprezzatura and amoral relish by Stella Doufexis—came unexpectedly in Italian. It was flagrant violation of this house’s fundamental principle, here brushed aside by the cultural capital of the aria and deemed insufficient to sunder the inextricable bonds between the Italian text and Handel’s melody. It was as if the composer and his music, through his advocate Herheim, was holding ground at least at the outset against appropriation of his music by the moderns.  The choice could also be defended as taking part in long tradition of multi-lingual opera, a practice also drawn on in the hilarious flower-girl song translated by Eberhard Schmidt into coarse Berlin dialect and done in drag and falsetto by the bearded comic bass Elviro (the fabulous Hagen Matzeit).

Handel’s music is a feast for the ears, but he also for the eyes and the concert of the sense reached unprecedented concord in Herheim’s staging. The floorboards were raked towards the pit as in eighteenth-century theaters, the incline lending visual and acoustical—and therefore theatrical—weight to the move forward to center stage by hero or villain.

The sets made use of dramatically foreshortened perspective flats executed in glorious detail: a Georgian town square; an imperial colonnade; the Persian navy at its port with—as the libretto puts it—a bridge from Asia to Europe; blue-green waves parted to reveal whacky monsters; and, in the opening scene, that most famous aria Ombra ma fui, a grove surrounding the plane tree hymned by the wandering monarch about to embark on his amorous deceptions.

Fabulous scrims, like a Tiepolo frescoes, were animated as much by painterly lighting effects as by fetching angels and handsomely costumed gentlemen and ladies. Herheim showed just how opulent a treasure trove of optical pleasure the baroque opera stage was.

But all this carefully researched set-design yielded more than just historical accuracy. Herheim continually offered witty commentary on our historical distance to the baroque past, as in the just-mentioned use of the pit as a setting or when the wind toppled the scenery to reveal aspects of its construction.

Herheim also played ingeniously with gender. The heroic male roles in Handel’s era were sung by male sopranos castrated as boys, but are nowadays given to countertenors or mezzo-sopranos.  In the Berlin production these parts were taken by women. Costume designer Gesine Völlm had great fun with this, giving the Persian field marshal Ariodates and the sovereign himself hooped-skirt armor. (For stills of this get-up and a few of the other memorable moments from the production go to http://www.komische-oper-berlin.de/spielplan/xerxes/bilder/#)

The most noble of civilian male costumes was also amplified by hoops in the formal court attire of Arsamenes, Xerxes’ brother and competitor for the hand of the fetching Romilda, played by Brigitte Gellert who, even though ill, sang with a tremendous virtuosity that buttressed the unflagging virtue her character.  Throughout the evening, past and present reflected off one another like perfectly placed mirrors: modern women singing ancient men’s parts, sometimes wearing masculine clothes made weirdly ambiguous by the chief marker of the eighteenth-century woman—hips widened by hoops. A touching instance of these reflections and refractions came at the end when the concluding chorus—made up of the main characters— singing before an eighteenth-century backdrop was usurped by a large modern one. The ancients were shocked, even frightened by these strange, far less colorful beings looking in at their rampant lusts and listening in on their sensual music from the 21st-century. A bewildered Xerxes and his subjects seemed eager to be carried back into history by the rotating stage and leave the moderns to their distant voyeuristic pleasures.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com