“A revival of a revival of a revival” might describe Handel’s practice of reviving his own works. This highly acclaimed revival production of Handel's Xerxes received it best performance to date with a star-studded cast.

Xerxes Act 1, © Cory Weaver
Xerxes Act 1,
© Cory Weaver

Xerxes tells the tale of two brothers, Xerxes and Arsamenes, both competing for the same bride – Romilda. Though Romilda and Arsamenes are betrothed, Atalanta, Romilda’s sister, attempts to thwart their love. The plot is further enriched through many disguises and additional characters.

The revival of the Nicholas Hynter production of Xerxes at the San Francisco Opera is an interesting specimen through which we can understand the evolution of Handel singing in our own time.

The cast was led admirably by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (Xerxes) and countertenor David Daniels (Arsamenes). Graham sang stylishly and sensitively. Her performance of “Più che penso alle fiamme del core” was perhaps one of the highlights of her performance the night I was in attendance. Ms. Graham, often more than others on stage that evening, sang her arias in a highly declamatory style. She embraced all of the colors of the voice – including ones that are more ugly than the “beautiful pearls” other singers strive to string together.

Though not in the title role, Mr. Daniels held regal command over the stellar cast as the most experienced Handelian on stage. None of his highly competent colleagues could match the naturalness with which he sings this repertoire. While many commentaries about Mr. Daniels highlight his stature within the realm of countertenor singing, few perhaps acknowledge his contributions to opera in general.

Heidi Stober (Atalanta) has absorbed the composer’s musical and dramatic style in a way that few other American singers of her generation have. In her first aria, the sassy “Sì, sì, mio ben, sì, sì,” Ms. Stober seduced the audience, and she continued to delight throughout the entire evening. In “Sì, sì...” she showed her ability to match the music, and in particular, her ornaments, to her physical gestures. In another aria, “Dirà che amor per me,” when greedily pointing to a piece of cake, she wagged her finger upon each repetition of the note to great comic effect.

Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), the youngest member of the cast and the least experienced in singing the repertoire, dazzled the audience all evening. Particularly memorable was her aria “Se l’idol mio rapir mi vuoi.” Ms. Oropesa’s delivery of the accompanied recitative “L'amerò?” needed more strength and support. In her arias, she had a tendency to pinch her way through long melismas, or sing a leap a bit sharp. Perhaps in navigating Handel’s many “waves,” “hills,” and “rivers” of melisma, she occasionally loses her way. However, in her final cadenza in “Val più contento core” at the end of Act II, she proved she does in fact have an incredibly secure upper register.


Sonia Prina (Amastris), though no stranger to the American stage, is certainly new to many audiences. Her extravagant sound is perhaps not to the taste of some listeners. Whether or not you buy what she’s selling, the fact that such an economy of choice even exists among baroque voices today speaks to the fact that the performance of this repertoire has become more mainstream.

The two bass-baritones, Wayne Tigges (Ariodates) and Michael Sumuel (Elviro) were perhaps the least memorable of the evening though were still strong additions to the outstanding cast.

Conductor Patrick Summers read Handel’s score with rich detail. Surely, Summers has benefited from two decades of research and recordings which embrace new ways of performing Handel. In “Se l’idol mio rapir mi vuoi,” Summers articulated the short phrase lengths and repetitions with appropriately subtle ritardandi and rests. As a result, the piece was galant rather than shrill. In one of the most delightful arias, “Più che penso alle fiamme del core,” the orchestra lacked some of the “fiamme” (flames) one might expect to hear. As a result, it spoke less to the “core” (heart). This was indicative of many of his performances and tempi.

Some physical changes in the pit could have improved the continuo. Often, the singer and the harpsichordist were either chasing or casually tripping behind the other. Were the harpsichordist and principal cello more elevated, as some conductors choose to do in large pits, they could more easily have eye contact with both the conductor and the singers.

Overall, the performance was extraordinary. Indeed, the biggest criticism of the performance is that some of the singers on stage were more experienced with the repertoire than the man with the baton. Still, Summers is perhaps one of the leading opera conductors in the large American houses to conduct the works of Handel.

*****