Sunday, November 20, 2011


Saturday night I was glad for the chance to see the final performance of Handel's 1738 opera Xerxes. The current production was originally created for English National Opera by Nicholas Hytner in 1985. It was thought a great success at the time and remains in wide use by various companies after 25 years.

Though the story ostensibly concerns ancient Persians there is no attempt in the libretto to address Persian culture, and Hytner felt free to set the scene in the London of the 1730s which Handel inhabited.

This production had never before been seen in San Francisco, largely because the opera Xerxes (also called by the Italian form of the name – Serse) had never before been staged by San Francisco Opera at all. How grateful I am to have lived long enough to see the coming-into-fashion-again of Handel's operas – and of Baroque opera generally.

Susan Graham sang the title role – superbly well. There is an absolute guarantee of high and abundant pleasure, seeing her on stage. The first characteristic that I always notice every time I see her is that she is the most relaxed performer imaginable, certainly the most relaxed performer I have ever seen. Every one of her movements and gestures appears genuinely spontaneous and unselfconscious.

As above, the occasional mythological Persian artifact obtrudes – but always in the shape of the sort of archaeological booty that was beginning in Handel's day to be imported on a large scale by the Empire-building English.

Chorus members and supernumeraries (in background, above) were made up and costumed as monochrome anonymous near-identical figures. They functioned preponderantly as scenery rather than as characters.

Seeing Susan Graham and David Daniels on the same stage felt like an amazing piece of luck. Two major figures in the victorious movement to bring Baroque opera back into mainstream repertoire.

The program contained an introduction to the opera by the conductor for this run, Patrick Summers. There, he reported the following conversation –

"David Daniels, one of the most experienced Handelian singers in history, described to me his attraction to Handel, "it is the deep humanity of how he dramatizes characters; it is Greek, basic, very real. There is an emotional inner life to these people that one simply doesn't find in many other composers." Fascinatingly, the leading countertenor of our day listed to me the three composers he thought the most profound, in order of preference: Wagner, Handel, and Janáček."

Summers goes on in his own voice –

"Handel incites the imagination, but he never tells you what to feel. He is the musical compatriot of the great Baroque architects: your presence is required to complete the work of art they began."