Handel’s Xerxes (1738) was part of this year’s “home and homeland” season at Glimmerglass Festival. The piece is loosely based on Xerxes I, King of Persia (518-465 BC) who crossed the Dardenelles on a Pontoon bridge, but the opera is more about personal relationships, than empire building. It is an entertaining mix of comedy and seriousness. It begins with Handel’s famous Largo, “Ombra mai fu”. The New York Handel revival began in 1966 with Guilio Cesare at New York City Opera. Although Handel oratorios never truly disappeared from the canon, his operas fell out favor. This happened in spite of the quality of Handel’s music, his arias have been preserved in anthologies; however contemporary audiences were used to operas with very few arias. The major characters were only given one or two solos and the rest of the action was carried out in ensembles. In Handel’s day however, each character reacted to every new development of the plot with an aria.

John Holiday (Xerxes) © Karli Cadel
John Holiday (Xerxes)
© Karli Cadel

Xerxes delineates the kings romantic exploits, as he disrupts people's lives according to his royal whim. Although the king is betrothed to Amastris, he falls in love with Romilda. Romilda, however, loves Xerses’ brother Arsamenes. To make matters more complicated, Romilda’s sister Amastris is also in love with Arsemenes. Atalanta makes use of a purloined love letter to convince Arsamenes that Romilda loves Xerse, pandemonium ensues but the opera ends happily.

The conductor Nicole Paiement ran an upbeat reading of the score which brought out both the vivacity and the beauty of this quintessential Baroque opera. However the work was substantially cut. To an extent this makes sense; Handel's operas are notoriously long and generally need to be cut, however this version of the score omitted many of the repeated sections of the da capo arias. These ornamental sections are crucial to the dramatic impact of the opera as they are the principal means to express the emotional responses of each character.

Katrina Galka (Atalanta) and John Holiday (Xerxes) © Karli Cadel
Katrina Galka (Atalanta) and John Holiday (Xerxes)
© Karli Cadel

As King Xerxes, countertenor John Holiday possessed a plush high register, while he adequately portrayed his character’s impetuosity; unfortunately his notes across the passaggio were a little too thin. Mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, who played Arsamenes, possessed a strong voice. She made the case for mezzo-sopranos to sing Handel’s leading male roles. Although these parts were originally written for castrati, modern mezzo-sopranos have the vocal power these men were said to possess. As Romilda, soprano Emily Pogorelc sang with a beautifully lyrical voice. She gave a riveting performance which easily took center stage whenever she was present. Katrina Galka used her flexible coloratura to portray the antics of Atalanta. Despite the confusions she causes, Atalanta is a truly loveable villainess.

The production directed by Tazewell Thompson was a suitable mixture of both traditional elements of Baroque opera and a realistic depiction of the ancient Persian Empire. The set, dominated by ancient columns, was bathed in green light which made it look exotic. While Xerxes wore ceremonial robes, Arsamenes, Romilda, and Atalanta wore western European armor and gowns respectively.