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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hitting the High Notes

KINGSLEY AMIS’S 1976 NOVEL The Alteration imagined a world in which the Reformation never occurred, setting the stage for a boy’s struggle to remain intact as forces within the church seek to maintain his glorious soprano. It was such an obsession, this voice quality, that in the early 18th century there were thousands of boys being thus altered. And in the midst of it all, glorious operas were being written for the best of these singers.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The voice was needed once the Vatican forbid women from singing in church choirs, a ban that went into effect in the 16th century, and the voice was prized for a clarity of tone combined with the vocal strength such singers developed.

By the early 18th century, the London-based George Frederic Handel was at a peak of fame. His opera output was tremendous, with some 40 such pieces to his name. “Xerxes,” first performed in 1738, featured four high voices in its tale of misplaced love and mistaken identity, the title role intended for one of the soprano castrati the composer worked with.

Unusually for Handel, the piece was not a success. Chief among its offenses seems to have been the inclusion of a buffo role, which angered the reliably grumpy Charles Burney enough for him to declare it “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music.” He took it to task for its “mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery,” which he believed had been “banished from serious opera.”

It seems not to have been performed again until the 1920s, and the more recent surge of interest in Baroque pieces and performance practices has given us Handel performances galore. The Glimmerglass Festival alone has produced nine of his operas, with Tazewell Thompson’s direction of “Xerxes” another triumph in the pursuit of this rarefied corner of the repertory.

The story ostensibly takes us to Persia in the 5th century BCE, and ostensibly follows historic figures through romantic complications that make old Fred Astaire movies seem straightforward. But what it’s really about is the voice, in particular the voice of John Holiday, Jr.

We saw him here two seasons ago in Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica,” and I wrote, at the time, that Holiday “has a countertenor voice of such unexpected beauty that it’s hard to imagine, from his lovely pledge of love ... that he can turn around a deliver (a) stirring call to arms ... with equal conviction.” He sounded even better this time around.

He opens “Xerxes” with one of Handel’s most famous melodies (and a traumatic one for beginning violin students), known simply as his Largo, but revealed here to be a paean to a tree. “Never was nature’s shade more beloved or treasured than thine,” he sings, and it sets up a level of conflict in which nature is pitted against man’s design – wonderfully exemplified in John Conklin’s set, giving us a verdant stage and an urban backdrop, a backdrop rent into fragments over the course of events.

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Holiday is joined by a top-notch cast that includes mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita (also a “Cato” alumna) as Arsamenes, brother of Xerxes and rival for the hand of Romilda (Emily Pogorelc). Holiday is regal with what seems like little effort; De Vita asserts Arsamenes’s royal ways with impressive brashness, and a voice that soars in an aria like “Meglio in voi col mio partire.”

Romilda, too, has a sassy side, and Pogorelc switched from the pastoral (she’s a brook worshiper) to the fiery duet “Troppo oltraggi la mia fede,” sung with Arsamenes.

Calvin Griffin sung the buffo role of Elvio, servant to Arsamenes, with enough charm and clowning skill that even the Burneyest of Burneys must have been won over.

Shorn of soldiers, it’s a cast of seven, completed by Katrina Galka as the scheming Atalanta, who has her cap set for Arsamenes; Abigail Dock as Xerxes’s true love, but masquerading as a soldier; and Brent Michael Smith as Romilda’s well-meaning but too-impulsive father. All of them were superb both vocally and in acting skills. Baroque operas are notoriously static; director Thompson gave them the necessary room to explore characters through movement as well as song.

And the big moments – like Xerxes’s “Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna” (“If you still love the man who rejects you”) were allowed to blossom like a tree, appropriate to both metaphor and scenic elements.

It’s always nice to see the neck of a theorbo sticking up from the orchestra pit, with its promise of a true Baroque sound, and conductor Nicole Paiement had an excellent continuo section in addition to the virtuoso orchestra (Michael Leopold wielded that theorbo, by the way).

With so many world-class companies visiting the world of Baroque opera, the bar has been raised quite high. This production proves that the Glimmerglass Festival can take its place alongside the best of them.

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