Xerxes (1988)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Ann Murray, Valerie Masterson, Christopher Robson, Jean Rigby

"Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave." – Beethoven

Handel was a German immigrant to England who never became fluent in the language of his adoptive country. Thankfully, this didn’t keep him from composing some of the greatest music ever written – most of it to lyrics in either Italian or English, both foreign to him. This circumstance appears to have been marvelously focusing. No composer of note was more prolific and so often met with success.

Nicholas Hytner’s innovative 1988 three-hour-plus production for the English National of Handel’s comic opera won the coveted Laurence Olivier Opera Award. The production and performers bear up brilliantly under a heavy burden. They make music which has for the most part engaged Handel’s muse at less than full measure seem more distinctive.

You might not be as convinced of Beethoven’s mighty endorsement based on "Xerxes" as you might other of Handel’s more consistently inspired operas. "Xerxes" came latterly in Handel’s long career. Based on an earlier Venetian opera of the same name, performed in 1645 and composed by Cavalli, it was first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, in 1738. Like subtle wine that doesn’t much impress in the imbibing, "Xerxes" really delivers in the aftertaste.

It’s hard to determine what the material’s tone was meant to be. At the time, opera was composed principally for the Royal Court where political intrigue did not exclude musicians. Today we know little of the hidden agenda in operas. Perhaps it addressed conditions of the day in some arcane manner.

You could succumb to terminal boredom attempting to sort out the various goings-on. Fortunately, Hytner’s ingeniously surrealist handling of the action appears shrewdly designed to throw you off the scent. Hytner’s solution to the irrelevancy of all but the amorous aspects of the plot is to reduce its impenetrability still further to virtual incoherency. A bridge between two nations, for example, is a model in a glass case! Hytner translates the setting of Ancient Persia to someplace veddy veddy English, via a time warp that places it in 1736 while at the same time making it vaguely futuristic.

Color use contributes tremendously to what little drama there is. David Fielding’s bright, handsome design is essentially the Vauxhall Gardens in the London of Handel’s time. Its outdoors indoors rather anticipates the spirit of the poet Byron and his crowd amidst green fields and marble ruins.

Like Cavalli and Gluck before him, Handel was a closet Romantic. Baroque music was slow yielding to even the outermost regions of ardor, though, even under Handel. Compared with the cathartic exercise of emotion in Mozart’s somewhat similar comic opera "Così fan tutte" a half-century later, "Xerxes" only fitfully plumbs depth of feeling (and little, if any, irony) from within the confines of musical structure.

Longtime principal ENO conductor Charles Mackerras has prepared his own edition of "Xerxes" which serves ideally, as does his baton in the pit. Nothing improves the undistinguished overture, which the video uses expeditiously for the credits. There’s even time for a nicely visual montage identifying each character in turn. This at least gives us a fighting chance to sort out who’s who. An apology that "imbecilities…are the basis of the story" shrewdly underlines the folly of our even attempting to tackle the plot.

The unassured or complete absence of trills denies us their particular coloration to the vocal. Otherwise, the fioratura (flowery singing) by all concerned is abundant and sparkling throughout. The show opens with its one certifiable hit, ’Ombra mai fù’ (’Under thy shade’) sung by Ann Murray as Xerxes. Unfortunately, her intonation is not firmly enough in place right off the mark to make the most of an otherwise auspicious start. Xerxes is a daunting role and Murray meets its demands with aplomb, notably near the opera’s climax (’Rise ye furies’).

When a composer churns out as much as Handel does, you might expect he’d not infrequently be on autopilot. Handel’s muse is never less than engaged throughout, but it too often seems to lack the spark of divinity. Ever the consummate showman, however, he picks up the pace just in time for the end of the mammoth first act. We’re rewarded with three successive arias of genuine intensity and urgency within the context of the artificial action.

The English National Opera is a repertory company. Its performers are accustomed to working together, resulting in exceptionally involved and involving dramatic relationships. This is opera acting at its most expressive and subtle.

Valerie Masterson is Romilda. Her control over throat and body are uncanny. Similarly delectable is Lesley Garrett as her sister Atlante. Jean Rigby is riveting as Amastris. Rigby is less called upon than the other principals, but when she’s on the scene, it is invariably to make her presence known in no uncertain terms. At the service of some daredevil coloratura, her ’Vengeance on him who spurns me’ is rage incarnate. Yet equally brilliant is her minimalist wallow in self-pity, ’I am the cause of my own ruin.’

Like Xerxes, Amastris is a so-called ’travesty’ or ’trouser role’ familiar to us from Mozart where males youths were often portrayed by female singers with lower voices. We accept this on practical grounds; young males voices might prove too fragile for the vocal dexterity demanded, not to mention the depth of expression. In a twist, Amastris turns out to be a woman – a double transvestite!

The countertenor experience may be unsettling to the uninitiated. Christopher Robson as Arsamenes is a man playing a man but with a woman’s voice. The sound is odd to modern ears, but Robson’s skill in negotiating an evening’s worth of precise and impassioned articulation has to be lauded.

The on-stage pairing of a man/woman with a woman/man remains foreign to us even as it gets more relevant to real life, what with today’s increased tolerance of sexual expression. Our times are not inordinately attuned to those of the Age of Reason, but presumably we’re getting there.

Anyway, to recap: the leader of one nation (Xerxes) and the heir(ess) apparent to another (Amastris) are both women as men, and the brother of the former (Arsamenes) is a man with the voice of a woman. Well, that’s royal inbreeding for you!

To confuse matters further, in Handel’s time the title role was sung by a male whose testicles were surgically removed to give him a naturally (if that’s quite the right term) higher voice. We are not accustomed to giving quite all to art these days, so we have little evidence to judge how much of a difference this would make. To the voice, I mean.

It has always been a virulently protected policy of the English National Opera to transcribe ALL opera into English. Handel did write most of his operas in English, but not this one. Hytner has made a virtue of necessity therefore in his own translation which proves wonderfully idiomatic ("By stealing secret kisses,/by whisp’ring murmured blisses…"). Even so, it probably would have done the public a service not to have tampered. Thanks to vocalists of impeccable diction across the board, the words come through crystal clear; this only compounds the befuddlement of audiences and imparts a sense of inferiority to be somehow lacking the skills to make these words mean something. More importantly, the sound of the original Italian text is softer, warmer than rhymes that sound cribbed from Alexander Pope.

This performance directed responsively by John Michael Phillips in the English PAL system was about as good as video got for 1988. Having been spoiled by a glut of recent high-definition derived stage recordings, I found the soft edges and the slight color bleed distracting at first on my PC player, which mercilessly exposes fine detail. On a settop DVD payer and a television set, the image was rendered more sympathetically, although Phillips curiously opts to use the image width to its fullest extremes. Why this seems an odd artistic choice is that home televisions or monitors were – and are – cropped of picture information on the top, bottom and sides costing us significant action and/or compositional balance to the image.

Analog video edge artifacting is present throughout. Thankfully, the production’s brightness tends to minimize it. Relatively static screen activity yields amazing image detail for the PAL system of 1988. On the other hand, character or camera motion inordinately blurs the image. It’s hard to pin down exactly why, but it would appear to be a compression issue compounded by transcription between systems of incompatible frame rates. The picture is largely noise free, a tremendous help.

The 2-channel stereo is dry in acoustic and somewhat lusterless, but some may prefer it to the fulsome liquid and enveloping sound of the 5.1-channel <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix. Both have presence and detail.

Expect zero for extras. Frankly, this title could have used optional English subtitles – not to reiterate what’s sung, but to remind us who’s who and what’s happening. After all, this is what half the audience is consulting the other half to learn!