There simply isn't a more ideal prelude to the approaching Valentine’s Day than IU Opera’s production of George Frideric Handel’s “Xerxes,” seen Saturday at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington, Ind. The production continues Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9.
IU Opera pulled out all the stops for “Xerxes” — an opera it has never produced — by engaging three renowned guest artists to form the creative team responsible for this exquisite production. They include: Tom Diamond, stage director; Gary Thor Wedow, music director, who led the impressive IU Chamber Orchestra; and Robert Perdziola, set and costume designer. Diamond collaborated with Wedow on IU Opera’s 2009 production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”
During a pre-talk, Diamond commented that “Xerxes,” a romantic comedy which is loosely based on a Persian emperor who ruled in 480 B.C., is “more a fairytale than a history lesson.” He also remarked in a press release that “even though the work is about a real historical figure and events, the opera deals more with humanity than history. At the end of the day, it is about people who love desperately and obsessively, and ache from their inability to find any satisfaction."
In this case, it’s Xerxes (Erica Schoelkopf) who yearns for the love of Romilda (Mathilda Edge), who spurns him for his brother, Arsamene (Daniel Bubeck). In the end, however, the king realizes that it is his fiancée, Amastre (Anne Chester), who he is meant to be with after all.
The three-act “Xerxes,” which was first performed in London in 1783, has an Italian libretto and features some of Handel’s most beautiful and passionate music. This stunning IU production was notable because that which was viewed, so beautifully matched that which was heard.
The elegant, lovely, Baroque-flavored world — created by Perdziola and represented in the form of sumptuous costumes and sets that incorporated a massive tree, grand palace interiors and Xerxes’ famed armada of ships — provided an abundance of visual splendor.
As far as the score and libretto for “Xerxes,” Saturday’s cast — one of two that alternate performance dates, and consist of Jacobs School of Music Students — exhibited a level of dramatic and vocal excellence that spoke to their clear potential as future stars of the opera world.
Mezzo Erica Schoelkopf was effective in the challenging trouser role of Xerxes, the brooding king who pines away for Romilda, a love he cannot have.
Countertenor Daniel Bubeck was thrilling in his dynamic performance as Xerxes’ gallant but often languishing brother, Arsamene, who competes with his royal sibling for the same woman.
Soprano Mathilda Edge was formidable as the head-strong Romilda, determined to stay true to Arsamene despite Xerxes’ scheming machinations to win her over.
Mezzo Anne Chester also turned in a fine performance as Xerxes’ long-suffering fiancée, Amastre, as did soprano Elsie Kennedy, who showed spunk and comic flair as Romilda’s plotting sister, Atalanta.
Also deserving of praise were the remaining members of the cast, which included bass Tyler Henderson as Romilda and Atalanta’s father, Ariodote, and baritone Nathaniel Hill as Elviro, Arsamene’s clownish servant.
An inspired choice was Diamond’s decision to include a dancer (Aron Anker) to play the role of Amore, who represented Cupid, the god of love. Anker, who neither spoke nor sang, and was onstage throughout most of the opera, was charmingly captivating as his Amore either observed or danced (to movement choreographed by Jacques Cesbron) in close proximity to many of the characters as they underwent their assorted romantic struggles.
For tickets and information about upcoming performances of IU Opera’s “Xerxes,” call (812) 855 -7433 or visit music.indiana.edu/opera.
Do you wish to become a regular reader of this column? Receive e-mail alerts when new articles are available. Just click on the “Subscribe” button above. Also, "Like" Tom Alvarez on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.