Boston Baroque’s Xerxes shows the way

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

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 outrÈ, 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

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

image_description=Michael Maniaci (Xerxes)/Amanda Forsythe (Atalanta) © Julian Bullitt/Boston Baroque
product_title=G. F. Handel: Xerxes
product_by=Michael Maniaci, Amanda Forsythe, Marie Lenormand, Leah Wool, Michael Scarcelle, Ava Pine and Mark Schnaible. Boston Baroque. Martin Pearlman: conductor. Paul Peers: director.
product_id=Above: Michael Maniaci (Xerxes) and Amanda Forsythe (Atalanta)

Photo © Julian Bullitt/Boston Baroque