02 Nov 2008

Boston Baroque’s Xerxes shows the way

Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?

Certainly, Martin Pearlman’s band has been out there on CD as well as live performance since 1973, but somehow, they’ve never quite garnered the international renown that is more than their due. Perhaps that is down to the very nature of their home city — sequestered as they are in leafy streets and squares, an academic island insulated from the hue and cry of New York’s glitzier scene — let alone the period powerhouses across the Atlantic. Perhaps it is just their choice? If so, that’s lucky for their European competitors, some of whom might have to look to their laurels.

Boston Baroque have a fine record of producing Handelian opera with limited space and resources and with their most recent Xerxes, presented semi-staged by first-time opera director Paul Peers in the fine acoustic of Jordan Hall, (seating 1100), they have succeeded again. The key to this Xerxes was the integration of a fine cast of mainly young singers with a band that has this musical idiom in their very fibre, and a lean semi-staging by Paul Peers that used the limited space to good effect without making the mistake of imposing too much business onto music and a sparkling libretto that doesn’t need it. The musicians were seated centrally on the stage, and the singers moved around, behind and in front of them, using various exits (and the auditorium itself occasionally) to give visual variety. Dress was modern, unexciting but acceptable.

If Handel didn’t have much success with this opera at its London opening (it only lasted 5 nights) and was soon moving on into the more reliable world of oratorio, this is no reflection on his genius. It was simply that Xerxes was just too explorative, too outr√©, too challenging in its musical design, for the opera seria buffs of 1738. For a start, many of the arias don’t follow the set pattern of A-B-A of the time; there are less formal, more flowing sections of arioso and chatty recitative that move the action forward without so many regular stops for star-vehicle arias. And there is, of course, with the Elviro servant character, out and out comedy, almost buffo, that hardly fitted the pattern of the day. There is the usual romantic cats-cradle of mistaken identity, forbidden love, and jealousies of course, but this is a more tender, more emotional, exploration of humanity’s foibles than Handel often pursued.

The casting of baroque opera in the USA is less problematic than it used to be back when Boston Baroque was in the vanguard of period performance. More conservatories are now including period performance practice in their curricula, but it’s still not mainstream in the way that it often is in the capitals of Europe. For young singers fighting for work in America it’s tough, and they have to be adaptable — and take every opportunity to learn from specialists like Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. This particular cast was, by and large, — considering the results — surprisingly inexperienced in the genre: the more to their, and Pearlman’s credit.

On the female side, only soprano Amanda Forsythe as the foxy, feisty Atalanta, forever interfering, could be described as au fait with Handel and if she was tempted on occasion to over-egg the comedy, it was an appealing performance that showcased some brilliant highwire work. Equally pleasing to the ear was mezzo Leah Wood in the difficult role of the wronged and rather out-of-sorts Amastre, although a little more volume might have helped her in her more declamatory music which she sang with commitment and a warm steady tone throughout. Marie Lenormand took the role of prince Arsamenes, often these days sung successfully by countertenors, and although she sang with great expressiveness her soft-grained mezzo soprano and natural femininity of movement rather prevented her from fully inhabiting the character — a lovely young singer, but rather miscast here. An exciting voice for the future is talented Texan soprano Ava Pine who sang the role of Romilda, beloved by both King Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes. She belied her inexperience in the genre to give a riveting performance that grew with every scene, her richly expressive soprano under fine control throughout, with plenty of dynamic on tap when needed.

With the male performers, without doubt the star of the show was male soprano Michael Maniaci in the title role. Maniaci, experienced in both baroque and classical style, has a growing and deserved reputation as a fine young singer with some recent major successes both in North America and Europe (his Armando in the recently released DVD of the Fenice production of Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto caused quite a stir), and this was his first attempt at a role which up to now has almost always, for obvious reasons, gone to period-specialist mezzos. It was the right decision as the role was perfect for his dark-hued soprano; it would be good to hear him as Xerxes again elsewhere, or even recorded at some future date. He has a unique timbre, with power to spare, a great facility for coloratura at dizzying heights and yet also the ability to spin long lines with tender expressivity when required. If Maniaci had the showpieces, then Michael Scarcelle enjoyed the comic possibilities of the servant Elviro, his agile dark baritone flipping up easily into pantomime falsetto and his athletic figure skipping easily up and down the auditorium steps for the “drag” scene of the “flower-seller”. Supporting the whole pyramid of Handelian voices was the resonant bass of Mark Schnaible as the dopey general Ariodate; it was good to hear this role sung by a low voice in its prime. The chorus of Boston Baroque sang and marched confidently as required, their obvious facility with the genre matching their excellent intonation and diction.

Throughout all, Martin Pearlman, conducting (when not pestered by Atalanta) his 25-strong band with verve, precision and great rhythm, kept a supporting eye and ear out for his singers and got the dynamic balance exactly right. This was high-class Handel, and if only Boston got to hear it for two nights, then that was Boston’s good fortune.

Sue Loder © 2008