Handel's Xerxes was first produced in 1783 for wealthy Londoners who allowed themselves to suffer the atrocious libretto so that they might enjoy the Italianate charm of the music and an awesome display of vocal pyrotechnics. Since the Harvard Opera Guild's singers (though competent) are incapable of coloratura acrobatics, and since audiences nowadays expect more from an operatic plot, considerable attention was focused on the opera's "dramatic" element at yesterday afternoon's performance. Besides, card-playing and the consumption of ices between arias are impractical in Agassiz; therefore it was imperative that something transpire on the stage.
The Opera Guild's stratagem involves the substitution of spoken dialogue for many of the recitatives, and the employment of an English translation that wavers between brassy colloquialism and comically stiff couplets. Along with the idiocies of the plot itself, they provided an enjoyable parody of the heroic style. It was difficult to tell at first whether the action was farcial by intent or accident ("Where did I get the nerve?" muses the soprano after telling off Xerxes), but as the melodramatic cliches become less widely spaced the audience turned partisan, hissing the villain with all its might. As is proper in a drama of love, war, and deception, there is a chorus strutting about occasionally, singing things like "Prepare to fight with skill and might," and a priestess (attractively played by Elizabeth Theiler) going through a mystic ritual-dance.
Above all this floats the music, most of which displays Handel's more fluid, graceful style--the finest example being the superb duet of Arsemene and Romilda. The singers carry out their tasks well; John Leonard and Vivian Thomas produce especially beautiful sounds. Robert Scher deserves special mention for his performance (in a voice which suggests the weight and power of an articulated locomotive) of a song about wine that begins, "This persuasive potable makes your thoughts more quotable."
The ensemble of two pianos and 'cello is vigorously conducted by Daniel Larner, who made the intelligent abridgement of the opera. Xerxes has pretty costumes and sets as well, and Peter Brown's staging is appropriately mock-serious. A trip to Agassiz is unquestionably worthwhile, if only to hear fine music which will probably remain unperformed again until the next Handel year (1985).