The 1891 Academy of Music here in Northampton was host this evening, June 25, to a complete, fully staged performance of Serse, commonly known under its English-translation title Xerxes, by George Frideric Handel, sung in the original Italian, by an unknown librettist – perhaps Handel himself – who liberally borrowed from that of Silvio Stampiglia of the 1694 Roman opera of the same title by Giovanni Bononcini, who had in turn adapted that by Nicolò Minato for the 1654 Venetian opera of the same title by Francesco Cavalli. There were no copyright laws in those days, and Handel also borrowed material from about twenty numbers of Bononcini’s music! This concert featured the Arcadia Players Period Orchestra and seven soloists, directed and conducted from the harpsichord by Ian Watson , and was staged and produced by Eve Summer.
The same venue was the location of the U.S. première of the opera on May 12, 1928, directed and conducted by composer and Smith College music professor Werner Josten, for whom the college’s Performing Arts Library is named, and staged by Smith speech professor Lizbeth Laughton. (More on this historic performance follows this review.)
The love-quadrangle plot comes primarily from Book VII of Herodotus’ (ca. 490-ca. 420 BCE) Histories — in a nutshell: young king Serse (son of Darius) is betrothed to Amastre, but becomes enamored of Romilda, daughter of his general Ariodate, who is betrothed to Arsamene, Serse’s brother, who is in love with her; they marry in secret in Act III, Scene X, thus frustrating and infuriating Serse, but they sort it all out and all ends happily in a finale hymn of joy and praise of love. Romilda’s sister Atalanta, who is unrequitedly enamored of Arsamene, Arsamene’s servant Elviro, pages and soldiers, ladies and street vendors complete the cast.
The opera’s opening brief single-movement aria, “Ombra mai fù,” is one of Handel’s most famous melodies, commonly known in its orchestral form as “Handel’s Largo,” although it is marked larghetto; many reviewers of the 1928 performance made much of this since they had never heard it in its original context before. This slow, serious aria is also not a good indication of the comic buffoonery that follows, including a woman disguised as a man and a man as a woman, that presages Mozart’s comic operas, or of the work’s generally more spirited tempo. The opera contains several such single-movement arias (although some text is repeated in them), an innovation in the context of the standard three-movement opera seria ABA form with da capo repeat that was previously the norm, which is also found in the work, and is a feature that contributes to the opera’s popularity because it moves the action along more quickly and smoothly, inherently reducing the then predominant ‘park and bark’ performance style.
The libretto was tweaked for this production as well, with a view towards curtailing the numbers of the personnel required and focusing exclusively on the central love-quadrangle plot. All of the chorus numbers were eliminated, as were all the roles, soldiers and vendors, those singers would have played. Most of the references to the historical sub-plot involving Serse’s invasion of Greece/Europe via a bridge constructed across the Hellespont, the first one destroyed by a storm shortly after it was completed and the second successful one being a sort of floating bridge on pontoons formed by small boats, were removed. A couple of the foroty-plus arias were also eliminated. This sounds like a lot, but is in fact a tiny amount of text and music because the chorus has only six short numbers totaling about 4.25 minutes, and the stage roles of the soldiers and street vendors are non-musical, more like props than characters, so the score was performed in its near entirety. Handel’s interests in including these features and characters were possibly complicating the plot and populating the stage for spectacle and to hold the audience’s attention. Also, in order to reduce total performance time, a single intermission was given near the mid-point of Act II, between its original Scenes V and VI, rather than two at the ends of Acts I and II.
The small but perfectly adequate orchestra was limited to elelven strings (six violins, two violas, two ’cellos, one bass) and a single woodwind player handling both oboe and recorder in addition to the harpsichord; as in 1928, the horns and trumpets were eliminated since they primarily appear in some numbers with chorus.
The casting was also slightly different from the standard, in that a second male role, that of Arsamene, usually sung by a countertenor (and perhaps originally also by a castrato?), was given to a mezzo, relative newcomer Stephanie Scarcella. This served to make the brothers both of the same gender, albeit the opposite of the natural one. Paul Soper played Ariodate, Kathryn Guthrie Demos, also a relative newcomer, Romilda, and Andrea Chenoweth, Atalanta, his daughters. The printed program was bare-bones, with cast and personnel listed on the inside of the front cover, a synopsis of the plot and action as staged in two acts on the inside of the back, and bios of the cast and personnel in an unattached insert. The back cover carried an announcement of Arcadia Players 2011-2012 season programs. The un-credited cover image, also used in the advance publicity, had nothing to do with this production.
As she always does, Summer set the action in our time. Some might view this as incongruous with a historically informed rendition of the music, others might see it as totally inappropriate; but it ends up seeming perfectly natural, once you have adjusted to its departure from the standard effort to suggest one or another historical period, and in spite of the fact that the singing not being in your own language conflicts with your real world. Romilda was caught sucking on a lollypop at one point, chewing gum at another. The projected English surtitles, freely translated by Summer, were in modern colloquial speech, sometimes racy, sometimes profane, and occasionally elicited some chuckles from the audience. They made no attempt to follow the rhythm of the music – the sung Italian is doing that, after all – but rather to communicate the essence of the thoughts behind the words in current slang, clichéd phrases and clipped quips, and helped the audience buy into the spirit of the production. Summer’s work in both these veins is always ‘spot on.’
The production was a bit slow to get off the ground, but gathered momentum steadily as it moved forward, thereby closely following the choppy pacing of the original libretto and score. There is a lot of coming and going from scene to scene, especially in Act I, which tends to encourage ‘park and bark’ staging, but Summer counteracted this by various techniques. Singers changed positions in the midst of arias or moved about while singing them. Amastre, played by Desiree Maira, a newcomer to the Boston area from Florida, arrived in Act I with a wheeled luggage bag and got into her disguise costume as a soldier in Ariodate’s/Serse’s army on stage, and later in Act II (III) completed getting back out of it in sight of all as well.
The all-purpose set, designed by Julia Noulin-Mérat and identified as “King Serse’s Palace,” consisted of a vegetation-less outdoor blue terrace (A backdrop of blue sky with clouds was behind it.) three steps up from the stage on which were perched a blue bench left of center and a blue three-tiered fountain with white interior and a rim that served as an alternate seat on the right, with a J-shaped white pergola draped with grape vines wrapping around behind, towards the left. It was simultaneously Italianate, Mediterranean, and desert-like, with the colors perhaps intended to suggest Moorish tiles, practical, effective, and attractive in its simplicity. Noticeably absent, however, was the plane tree to which the opening aria is addressed; the use of a removable tree on the far left of the stage would have made that scene more logical and realistic, even though it is different from anything that follows, as pointed out above. One can’t eliminate it, but one could make it seem a bit less abstract and detached…
The costumes, designed by Kathleen Doyle, were contemporary grunge chic, the sole exception being Serse’s more upper-crust, elegant patterned top and white slacks, each character’s distinctive and different from the others, some more conservative, others a bit outlandish, but all blending as would those of a random mixed group of people caught on any busy city street. The most far-out was that of the flower vendor, conceived as a cross between a ‘bag lady’ and street comber of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, the latter filling her super-market shopping cart (essentially the sole prop of the production) the former attached to her coat. This role is played by Elviro, Arsamene’s servant/assistant, here sung by relative newcomer Darien Worrell, who interpreted and differentiated the two roles well.
The voices were all good; those of River and Chenoweth stood out slightly above the others, but none was in any way weak. All were appropriate to their characters and all evidenced excellent diction and projection. All also had moments where they departed from their routine production to convey a strong emotion, and shone is so-doing. The singers also acted, nearly continuously moving about the set, alternately standing and sitting; there was very little ‘park and bark,’ less and less as the work progressed towards the final chorus, sung by the septet of principals that also sings the final recitative, which was veritably choreographed. Their movements and gestures were also individualized and differentiated, appropriate to their costumes and personae. Watson kept things moving along with his customary energetic tempo and generally brisk pace. The Summer-Watson collaborations are always imaginative, fruitful, enjoyable, and satisfying in their combinations of old and new, traditional and adventuresome. The performance was well received. It is unfortunate that it did not play to a full house, and that it won’t have the opportunity of a repeat or prolonged run.
Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009.
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More on the original performance at Smith College in 1928:
This was the fourth from last of the composer’s 42 operas, his sole comic one, although there are some comic elements in a few others, and is today his second most popular, after Giulio Cesare, his seventeenth, which premièred in London fourteen years earlier — on February 20, 1724.
Xerxes featured some well-known soloists accompanied by a pick-up orchestra and chorus that included Smith College faculty and students and some area musicians, with wind players from the Boston Festival Orchestra, and was covered by reviewers with papers from Boston, New York, and as far away as Pittsburg, PA and Dayton, OH, who generally lauded the performance. It played to a full-house (800+ seats), reported by several writers to have been enthusiastic and engaged in some foot-stamping applause, with famous Metropolitan Opera soprano Geraldine Farrar in a parterre box. Tickets were: $2.00, $1.50, and $1.00.
Although a major milestone, that performance was a far cry from this one. For starters, it shared the bill, on the second half, with Monteverdi’s cantata Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, also in its U.S. première, sung in the original Italian and pantomimed, on the first half. Xerxes was sung in an English translation by Bayard Quincy Taylor, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, of a condensed version (Act I’s 15 scenes were combined/reduced to 2, Act II’s 14 to 1, Act III’s 12 to 2) in German made for a 5 July 1924 revival in Göttingen by Dr. Oskar Hagen, who, by 1928, was also teaching at U. Wisc., Madison. The setting and costumes, designed by puppeteer Remo Bufano of New York, were described as “in the stylized manner,” meaning that they attempted to suggest Persian ones of the period of the work rather than ones of Handel’s time.
The lead role, written for the famous castrato Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano), who sang its London première at the King’s Theater, Haymarket, on 15 April 1738, was sung by a tenor (rather than today’s customary mezzo, as tonight by Krista River, recent Yale graduate and New Haven, CT, native, Charles Kullman , who went on to enjoy a significant career, first in Europe, and then for some 25 years at the Met. His love interest, Romilda, was sung by former Met soprano Mabel Garrison, then teaching voice at Smith. The horn and trumpet parts were eliminated from the orchestral score and the continuo was provided by a “harpsichordized piano” (which the playbill listed as a harpsichord) played by new York-based Irene Jacobi , whose husband, composer Frederick Jacobi conducted the stage music. Much of the staging was apparently the standard ‘park and bark’ of the era. After four more performances in London in April and May 1738, the opera was not heard again until the aforementioned 1924 Göttingen performance.
Josten had in the previous year directed the U.S. première of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, also sung in English in the same venue, and the year before that, the U.S. première of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, again sung in English, but that performance was held in Sage Hall, the music building on the college’s campus, on the occasion of its dedication. Readers interested in more details of these endeavors, that may today seem unusual in such a small city (then and now under 30k), may be able to locate a copy of the book Baroque Opera at Smith College, which is in fact a photographic reproduction of Josten’s personal scrapbook that includes playbills and articles from the press (alas, several with typos, especially in names), including such publications as The New Yorker, some by then very well-known critics and writers, and a few photos of cast and sets.— M J. W.