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Scott Hinrichs Royal Wiles: John Bellemer (right) confronts his rival in love (Nmon Ford-Livene, center)

Handel's score outpaces story in OSJosé's 'Xerxes'

By Philip Collins

GREAT MUSIC is, of course, fundamental in creating a great opera. But just how much can music compensate for a bad story? George Frideric Handel's score for Xerxes is extravagantly beautiful and dynamic--so much so that the story about a fictionalized romantic fiasco in the life of Persia's historic king of the same name pales next to Handel's exalted artistry.

Niccolò Minato and Silvio Stampiglia, the authors from whom Handel borrowed in creating his libretto for Xerxes, are not even dim memories in musical history. Opera San José's revival of the work on Saturday evening provided abundant testimony as to why.

One applauds the company's daring to produce this obscure work, but Xerxes proves to be an unwieldy undertaking. Its problematic structure and special dramatic needs prove frustrating at times. Aside from a handful of outstanding vocal displays, vibrant orchestral work and eye-pleasing sets (by Joe Ragey), the enterprise overall falls short of Opera San José's usually high standards.

Supertitles inform the audience at the outset that the work is but an "entertainment ... seen through the eyes of the baroque." Although the explanation helps prepare one for certain modest departures from more modern operatic conventions, it likewise heightens expectations for a good time, i.e. entertainment. In this latter regard, Xerxes only occasionally succeeds.

The plot, as such, involves a silly muddle of intrigues surrounding a one-note drama. King Xerxes is obsessed with his brother's betrothed, and she wants nothing to do with him. Handel's expressive musical treatments throughout most of the opera honor the story's myriad entanglements with unvarying sovereignty. In the absence of a correspondingly arresting narrative, one's patience is repeatedly put to the test.

The conclusion is particularly unrewarding. After two hours of Xerxes' unscrupulous attempts to steal Romilda's heart, he at last yields and is forgiven by his betrothed, Amastre, within the blink of an eye. Handel's relatively uneventful musical shift makes for a most lackluster "happy ending."

Director Daniel Helfgot attempts to deflate the medium's high-art airs by making Xerxes a play-within-a play extemporaneously staged in a baroque court. The decision to have the characters sit on benches at the lip of the stage, with their backs to the audience, when not performing, might have worked had the conceit been realized more fully. But it was confusing, because the players did not make clear distinctions between their roles as participants and observers.

Handel's vocal writing proved a struggle for several members of Saturday-night's cast. Also, with few exceptions, the emotional range was disappointingly narrow, neutral for the most part.

Baritone Nmon Ford-Livene, making his company debut as Arsamene--Xerxes' wronged brother--provided a stellar exception. Ford-Livene's enthralling vocal gifts were bolstered by his galvanized expressive capacities. He provided a level of serious emotional credibility that was otherwise absent in the production.

In his aria "I have lost my heart," which concluded the first act, Ford-Livene and the orchestra conspired upon a moment of complete transcendence. Here the strings' delicate period style paid off bountifully; it was a moment of unworldly stillness. Harpsichordist Michael Touchi heightened the gesture further with a delectably placed arpeggio. In the second half, Ford-Livene again offered a high point, this time with an intense number that climaxed with a dazzling foray of ornamentation.

TENOR John Bellemer was surprisingly laid back as the celebrated king who purportedly bridged Europe and Persia. This offset the dynamic balance between Xerxes and Arsamene, for Ford-Livene consistently came off more powerfully than Bellemer, despite his brother's royal superiority.

Romilda, the object of both brothers' affections, was gracefully voiced by newcomer soprano Barbara Divis. Baritone Brian Carter gave a buoyant performance as the comic Elviro.

Mezzo-soprano Maureen Magill effectively carried off the part of Romilda's ever-flirtatious sister, Atalanta. In her tireless ploys at winning over Arsamene's heart, Atalanta is easily the most demonic and conniving of the lot of romantic schemers. Magill infused her role with infectious wiliness, commanding the stage during each of her featured episodes.

Xerxes' most stable assets emitted from the pit. After a not fully coalesced overture, the orchestra, conducted by Music Director Barbara Day Turner, settled in with utmost aplomb.

Xerxes plays Sept. 19­21, 24, 26 and 28 at 8pm and Sept. 22, 29 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $33­$42. (408/437-4450)

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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