While the London operatic scene buzzes with critiques of Barry Kosky’s production of Carmen, his home house the Komische Oper Berlin has remounted, as part of its 70th anniversary season, its 2012 production of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Xerxes. Please accept for now the German version of his name for reasons which will become apparent. The opera’s director Stefan Herheim is another master of theatrical tricks and inventiveness, playing with layers of illusion. The house is renowned for its musical and show businesss flair, and a packed Saturday night family audience, some of them young enough to be sat on parents’ laps, were enthralled and laughed with delight through three and a half hours of Baroque opera.

Philipp Meierhofer (Ariodates) and Stephanie Houtzeel (Xerxes)
© Jaro Suffner

It is a tale of typically convoluted amorous intrigue at the court of an ancient Persian king, originally set by Cavalli, but much adapted by Händel. At one stage in the imbroglio the comic servant Elvino refers to it a “Komische Oper” in a nice piece of self-reference, being translated in the English surtitles as a “peculiar opera”. Dr Charles Burney at the time of its 1738 première disliked the mixture of  “tragi-comedy and buffoonery”. Herheim’s interpretation certainly slanted towards the comic end of the spectrum, bringing to mind the description of Semele  as a “bawdy” opera.  

In Heike Scheele’s set we are in a Baroque theatre, like Drottningholm, with painted perspective backdrops and wings, fantastically transformed before our eyes by all the machinery of 18th-century stagecraft. Characters descend on cloud machines, and the wobbly Hellespont bridge is destroyed by flown-in storm clouds and two dimensional cardboard waves. In sumptuous costumes by Gesine Völlm the stage is populated by courtiers dressing up in opulent opera seria costumes, with a fair amount of undressing and cross-dressing, given all of the disguises and role playing. That all this is artifice is not disguised. The theatre revolves to show the shabby backstage dressing rooms with racks of costumes. The chorus and stage crew visibly manipulate the sets and props, while reacting sometimes audibly to the goings-on. To much mirth, the hands reverse the flats to reveal the letters of Xerxes, and manoeuvre them into anagrams ending with ‘SEX REX’.

Stephanie Houtzeel (Xerses), Nina Bernsteiner (Romila) and Nora Friedrichs (Atalanta)
© Jaro Suffner

From the opening “Ombra ma fù” the tone was set. Xerxes was played by Stephanie Houtzeel in the elaborate wig, boots and costume of a swashbuckler. Houtzel’s firm direct mezzo, tall figure and gait encompassed the range of mood swings through despotic rage, petulance and lasciviousness. With many costume changes, notably into a Sun-King with very prominent phallic sunburst, she held centre-stage. She and the entire cast, including balletic sheep, immaculately executed the stylised gestures and period choreography. The rare moments of stillness, like the lilting siciliano of Xerxes’ brother Arsamenes, sung with stylish legato and eloquent phrasing by Franziska Gottwald, were the more impressive for lack of hyper-activity. As Amastris, the king’s jilted intended, the securely wide-ranging alto of Ezgi Kutlu maintained pathos, just about, throughout her various stages of masculine disguise.

As Romilda, lover of Arsamenes and object of Xerxes’ lust, the lyrical Nina Bernsteiner and her flighty scheming sister Atalanta (Nora Friedrichs) were initially costumed identically making sense of mistaken identities. As Romilda remained virtuous in formal dress, her soubrettish sister became more dishevelled in her anything but virtuous intrigues.

Those that noticed Elvino’s reference to “Komische Oper” may well ask by this point what German was doing in an Italian libretto. In this version, however, with the exception of all but a few grander da capo arias, all the recitatives and the many brief single section arias were sung in German translation. In a swiftly moving plot this certainly aided comprehension. Hagen Matzeut, as Elvino in travesti, even sang his street flowerseller scene in Berlin dialect – in falsetto – most amusingly. 

Stephanie Houtzeel (Xerxes) and Ezgi Kutlu (Amastris)
© Jaro Suffner

In a raised orchestra pit with Baroque horns, recorders, continuo and trumpet, Konrad Junghänel conducted with rhythmic vigour, the players responding with crispness and colour. With the closeness of band and stage, the action overflowed at times, with an over-excited Amastris having to be cooled down by an orchestral score. The sturdy bass of Philipp Meierhöfer as the general Ariodates encouraged the conductor to up the tempo before he supposedly ran out of breath.

After all the ironic playing with period conventions and the resolution of the plot for the final scene, the versatile chorus entered in contemporary street clothes onto a stage now bare of the increasingly jumbled sets. They sang of honour and joy while the somewhat bewildered principals in their finery looked on. After all the elaborate spectacle and dazzlement it is Händel’s insight expressed by musical and dramatic richness into human foibles and desires that remains with the modern audience.