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The Flames of Xerxes’ Heart

Last week I effused over Stefan Herheim’s exuberant and endlessly inventive production of Handel’s Xerxes recently premiered at Berlin’s Komische Opera.  The virtuosic interplay with the past I began to describe last time, reached an unstoppable culmination late in the opera’s first act with Xerxes’  aria: Più che penso alle fiamme del core.

The scheming king, kitted out in full battle armor, has been surprised by the woman he has promised to marry, Amastris—the beautifully voiced and bodied Katarina Baradic, who spent most of the evening in (un-hooped) men’s clothes so as to spy on her betrothed, the amorously adventurous Xerxes. In the original libretto, Amastris exits and Xerxes then sings of his own heart enflamed for Romilda.

Instead, Herheim has Amastris stay at the front of the stage and watch. But she does more than that.

In full military parade get-up—the hooped armor and breastplate and helmet crowned with huge crimson plumes—Xerxes’ enters at the back of the raked stage. Such entries were recognized as visually incongruous in the eighteenth-century century, too; due to the perspective, the columns at the back of the stage were impossibly shorter than the singer. Herheim had fun with this incongruity, too, having Xerxes duck his way under the downsized architectural feature, a comic motion that worked in counterpoint to the imperiousness of the entrance itself. Xerxes then divested himself of his hooped skirt of armor to reveal to Sun King codpiece—golden crotch corona with pointy nose cone.

Handel depicted the flames of Xerxes heart with the regal thrusts of the French overture swelled with urgent harmonies redolent of love and power.  The aria is full of rising lines and fluttering trills—one of the key ornaments of eighteenth-century vocal display—and has four cadenzas. (A wonderful performance of the piece by American mezzo-soprano Paula Rasmussen can be enjoyed here.)

In his unforgettable staging of the aria, Herheim laid bare the common source of Xerxes’ political and erotic power.  At musically pregnant points—those marked by florid excess—Xerxes would pause in his downstage march and command the columns to follow him and rearrange themselves. The pillars quickly obeyed: even marble bends to the Persian King’s will. Although being spurned by Xerxes’ aria, Amastris went to her knees and got busy on the kingly codpiece, ministrations that add still more life to the effusions of his song—Xerxes aurally pleasuring others as he was himself orally pleasured.

On the return to the opening section of the aria, the singer was meant to vary what was written and add his or her own ornaments. This mezzo-soprano Stella Doufexis did with great invention and domineering surety. Her Xerxes then ordered the columns to turn around reveal the stagehands holding them up.  The lights went down and the stretchers behind the painted canvases lit up with the big letters XERXES, the first three of these stage-right, the last three stage-left. As you can see in Komische Opera publicity stills (http://www.komische-oper-berlin.de/spielplan/xerxes/bilder/#), while Xerxes/ Doufexis trilled he/she now had Amastris body arching gymnastically on the floor in front him. With fingers of his right hand tickling the air to his trills above Amastris—now clad only in her eighteenth-century undergarments—the king brought her to an orgasm whose vocal expression couldn’t help but join in one of Xerxes magnificent cadenzas. This was still another ingenious and theatrically virtuosic violation of eighteenth-century practice

Amidst all these pleasures, the randy monarch still had the multi-tasking capacity to command his columns-cum-letters to change place one last time: first the outer ones then the inner ones, so that at the end of his sensual triumph he was framed by SEX REX.

In hilarious fashion—with one glittering idea after the other coming in an invigorating crescendo of vocal and scenic invention— an eighteen-century set-piece was converted into a Las Vegas extravaganza. This dazzling transformation only increased the enjoyment to be had from Handel’s incomparable aria, the whole unforgettable show carried off with saucy hauteur by the regal Doufexis.

I have seen more than a few orgies on the Comic Opera stage, but this was the most pleasurable theatrical debauchery I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience.  As soon as I left the theater for the cool and misty Berlin night I was already looking forward to the next time.

Cycling through the city just after eleven o’clock, I could hear from the many television screens placed under awnings in front of bars and restaurants on Berlin’s wide sidewalks that the semifinal soccer match of the European Championship between Portugal and Spain was still underway. The game had gone into overtime.  I sped home in time for the penalty kicks in which Portugal went down to defeat when a Spanish shot hit the post and miraculously went into the net. The last Portuguese shooter, the world’s most famous soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, didn’t even get his chance, instead having to look on helplessly from midfield.  It was as if Handel’s Xerxes—premiered in 1738 by one of Europe’s greatest singer, the Neapolitan castrato Gaetano Majorano, known by his stage name Caffarelli—had been shackled in the wings, straining at his fetters and  prevented from singing when it really mattered. Yet how paltry and unartful the drama of soccer seemed by comparison to this Elysian collaboration between Herheim and Handel and their talented legions of the theater.

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

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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