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The Erotic and the Autocratic in Song and Spectacle

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I had my best-ever evening in the theatre twice: first for a magnificent production of Handel’s Xerxes in the Comic Opera in Berlin at its premiere, and then again on the Easter Sunday just passed for the very last performance of this staging’s five-year run.

Like those wealthy Londoners of Handel’s day who held coveted silver tickets granting them admission to all showings of an opera, I would have been at every one of the forty-six Berlin Xerxes had I remained in the city. Two performances will have to suffice for this lifetime. Although this Xerxes has exited the stage for good, it glories still in the imaginations and memories of those lucky enough to have been touched by its magic.

Eighteenth-century audiences, for whom repeat viewing of the same show was the norm not the exception, frequented the opera as much for the spectacle as for the music which energized it, this co-generation of theatrical power especially potent when a genius of Handel’s unmatched skill and panache was at the helm. Dark clouds; lightning and thunder; seething seas: martial clashes; twittering birds; scene changes from enchanted isles to darkened groves to crusaders’ castles; real elephants: these were just some of the special effects that made the eighteenth-century theatre so vivid, not because of their verisimilitude but because they encouraged imaginative leaps and active wonderment that brought the theatrical experience to life in a way that CGI games and 3D glasses never will. Music was the spark that ignited fantasy, the boarding pass for flights to limitless worlds, distant history and remote geographies animated in the bright baroque present.

Directed by Stefan Herheim, the celebrated Norwegian and long-time resident of Germany who has among his many award-winning successes a staging of Parsifal in Bayreuth and Meistersinger at the Salzburg Festival, this Xerxes has us enter Handel’s world through the composer’s own historical milieu, the characters appearing in frock coats and breeches, with quill pens and corsets—the fashions of 1738, when Xerxes was composed.   These figures begin literally behind the operatic scenes among the scaffolding support and the machinery that moves the sets for the convoluted, comic plot’s action. This ante-world rotates out of sight—and several times back into view, most touchingly, at the finally happy-ending chorus, —on the giant wheel in the stage floor.

The evening entwines three chronological strands: the ancient arena in which Xerxes’s military and erotic machinations play out; the early-modern pomp and pathos of Handel’s theatre; and the theatrical now that is, after all, the pretext for the performance itself. Rather than pedantically reminding us of the simultaneous pastness and presentness of the piece, Herheim’s three shifting time zones enliven, aggravate, enrich each other in unpredictably hilarious, sensual, and unanticipated ways. Herheim is an inexhaustible source of good ideas. Winds blow across an eighteenth-century square mussing the townsfolk and buffeting their anachronistic black umbrellas; a chorus of sea nymphs and other creatures emerges from baroque waves as the Persian fleet bobs at anchor; the jealous contest between two ladies vying for Xerxes’ wondering affections leads to a showdown with an increasingly powerful succession of weapons from snake, to dagger, to pistol, and finally to a canon that rips through the cityscape backdrop, the blast-hole casting its light over the stage for the rest of the evening. When even that canon hasn’t cleared the field of the rival, a crossbow is deployed, but this tool only succeeds in inadvertently murdering a plump Cupid, who drops flightless from his previously unseen hovering position above the stage.

At the close of the overture, conducted with effervescent angularity by Konrad Junghänel, the deconstructed ante-world slides out of sight on the giant wheel and the characters step from one imaginary past into another more remote one in ancient Persia. In the middle of the steeply raked, perspectival stage stands opera’s most famous tree hymned in one of Handel’s most popular arias, “Ombra mai fu.” Extras costumed as scruffily cute sheep complete the pastoral scene, Xerxes singing:

Tender and beautiful fronds

Of my beloved plane tree,

Let Fate smile upon you.

 

May thunder, lightning, and storms

Never disturb your cherished peace,

Nor may you be violated by fierce winds.

 

Never was the shade

Of any tree

More dear and lovely,

And sweet.

In 1738 Handel and his backers had lured the greatest Italian star of the day, Caffarelli to the London stage with heaps of money. By most reports the famous castrato was displeased with Handel’s music; it took real cajoling to get the singer to sing the opera’s first aria, rather than, as was more typical, withholding his entrance until later so as to increase excitement and ultimate applause. Instead of a high-voltage opener, Handel gave Caffarelli the simplest of vocal fare: a bass-line that rises gently by step, then descends, as if promenading around the beloved tree’s trunk. The voice enters on a long-held C with only the vowel “O”—as if the welcome shade is felt before it is named. The gesture defeats expectation in claiming victory for expression over virtuosity, allowing the singer to draw the audience in not with fiery passagework but with the most nuanced swelling of tone. The metaphor becomes real, envoiced: there are infinite shadings to be found, too, in a single tone. Transposed up a step, shorn of its diminutive tempo marking Larghetto, “Ombra mai fu” became the over-roasted chestnut, Handel’s Largo in G. I’ve played it on the organ at more than a few weddings myself. The castrato was wrong to be aggrieved about the entrance aria Handel gave him – though Caffarelli did not have much time to demonstrate his appreciation. Xerxes was not a success and after only a few performances disappeared for almost two centuries till its revival in Göttingen in 1924.

The complicating, creative dialog Herheim stages between different historical moments also comments on the status of gender on the eighteenth-century opera stage. The heroes of Handel’s operas, from Alexander to Caesar and beyond, were all castrati. After several decades hearing mezzo sopranos and counter-tenors take these roles, modern audiences have become somewhat accustomed to this counterintuitive mapping of machismo onto a tessitura more naturally assumed by women. Xerxes offers an exceptional case for Handel: this anti-hero is concerned with fulfilling his lusts rather than practicing his statecraft (though Handel’s Julius Caesar does both). This yields much comedy, the intrusion of farce onto the serious opera stage being likely the main reasons for the work’s failure in 1738.

Still Xerxes does include set-piece displays of military might allowing Handel to unleash the sublime brunt of his ceremonial style, Herheim summoning for some of these a baroque trumpeter in white-tie from the pit onto the stage to give the virtuoso his due and to allow us to admire in full view the technical triumphs of the modern day musicians playing the kinds of instruments originally used when the opera was first performed.

The randy, deranged, but nonetheless loveable monarch becomes a warrior by donning Roman-style armor, but with the legionnaire’s skirt ballooned out into a full-on lady’s hoop skirt: the ultimate androgynous autocrat.  In the aria “Più che penso, alle fiamme del core,” which sings of the flames of the heart and the crescendo of ardor, Xerxes casts off his/her lower armor to reveal alluring equipment underneath.

The regal rights to any and all loves exercised by Xerxes in this aria are pulled apart by Handel’s music to the point of dismemberment. Jagged leaps and bursting tirades are urged on over heated octaves and a thumping bass: a French overture imported from the Sun King’s court is unabashed in its extravagant debauchery. The vocal line wades into this froth in unexpectedly contained stepwise motion, but rises up with increasing ardor, whipped into a lather by the strings. Voice and orchestra gasp together in stuttering trills of passion between bursts of frenzied coloratura. The same key of F of “Ombra mai fu” has been transformed from a site of bucolic meditation to one of uncontainable lust. (“Più che penso” can be heard here in a performance by Annie Sofie von Otter.)

In a now legendary coup de théâtre, Herheim has his Xerxes proceed downstage while he commands the flanking columns to turn around and light up in neon the letters XERXES. Then, in the midst of his being orally gratified as he aurally gratifies the audience and his lover, he directs the letters to reorganize themselves one by one into SEX REX: a baroque motto direct from the Vegas strip. The erotic and autocratic have never been more brilliantly united in song and spectacle.

When I saw this production of Xerxes back in 2012 the title role was taken by the tremendous German-Greek mezzo soprano Stella Doufexis. Along with her dark angular beauty, she brought to the part an almost dangerously radiant charisma and a coruscating vocal exuberance that made her Xerxes an irresistible force: lusty, restive, easily wounded, impossible not to love.

Thinking now of the towering strength and vibrance of her performance it is almost impossible to accept that she died this past December at the age of 47.

The part was taken up with equal, if different strengths, by Stephanie Houtzeel, whose vast dynamic range, always deployed with theatrical cunning, and her sense of predatory fun made great theater and a moving tribute to Doufexis.

Returning to a piece of living theater that so uplifted and thrilled you in the past has its dangers, chief among them confronting the awful truth that Doufexis would no longer be striding the boards or raising her voice to the Comic Opera rafters. How can a new performance live up to that which has grown into an unattainable ideal in the memory?

Even for what was lost, Xerxes in Berlin, resurrected one last time on Easter Sunday, did not renege on its promises to me. From the same box seat I’d occupied in 2012 for those three-and-a-half unforgettable, unsurpassable, irretrievable hours, I was transported again to places I’d never been before.

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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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