Arts Festival Review: Xerxes

By William Dart

Tiffany Speight (left) as Romilda and Amy Wilkinson as Atalanta in  Xerxes . Photo / Neil McKenzie
Tiffany Speight (left) as Romilda and Amy Wilkinson as Atalanta in Xerxes . Photo / Neil McKenzie

Heroes don't come much kookier than Xerxes. He may be the King of Persia but he opens Handel's opera by extolling the beauties of a plane tree; a man who, as one character comments, "is aroused by a rough trunk."

For three hours, NBR New Zealand Opera's production of Xerxes transports us to an eighteenth-century Neverland. A libido-driven cast frolic in, around and about John Verryt's elegant colonnade in Trelise Cooper finery, with director Roger Hodgman ensuring the pace of a good Broadway musical.

Every recitative counts, earning regular laughs and chuckles from the audience. Nips and tucks to the original score are subtle; an occasional repeat is trimmed, an adroit second act reshuffle sharpens momentum.

Tobias Cole delivers Xerxes with Monty Python timing, an effete and dithery foil to William Purefoy's more seriously inclined Arsamene.

Purefoy moves us with his lament, Quella che tutta fe, delivered under one of Matt Scott's more effective lighting washes; Cole rages stylishly, even if his stamina is slightly tested in the final Crude furie.

Together they make a fine pair of duelling countertenors.

Tiffany Speight's Romilda ups the glamour quotient. Her early kittenish coloratura gives no hint of a tougher sparing duet to come, with Xerxes, in minuet time.

If Trelise Cooper's sumptuous cape marks her as the star, Handel has supplied more than enough music to accord her that status and she relishes it.

Amy Wilkinson is a sly Atalanta, vocally assured and rewarded with a general in her arms at the end of the opera. Kristen Darragh, working with the more earnest character of Amastre, seemed less relaxed with the demands of arias like Or che siepe.

Handel gives us good reason to rejoice in this opera with not one, but two tremendous bass roles. Stephen Bennett sings well and enjoys hamming it up as a jocular servant, shivering in storms one moment and dragging up as an eighteenth-century Minnie Pearl the next.

Presenting Ariodate as one hilariously pompous general, Martin Snell makes every note count in his rousing arias, even throwing in the occasional dance routine between verses.

The German Lautten Compagney, providing accompaniment under the baton of Wolfgang Katschner, is a major bonus. Martin Ripper's recorder scampers are an effervescent joy as is the endlessly flexible and inventive continuo work.

Brave, stylish and historic, in that this is our country's first fully-staged production of a Handel opera, Xerxes deserves your support before the short season closes on Sunday.

*Xerxes, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, is on till Sunday at the Civic Theatre. Tickets here.

- NZ Herald

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