REVIEW: Xerxes (Auckland Arts Festival)

Xerxes a "Mr Bean" type. Photo by Neil Mackenzie.

Xerxes ‘Handel-ed’ at its best

Xerxes a "Mr Bean" type. Photo by Neil Mackenzie.

[by Sharu Delilkan]

King Xerxes could well be likened to an 18th-century Mr Bean, with a cruel streak.

Australian-born counter tenor Tobias Cole, who plays the lead has a crystal clear voice that’s juxtaposed against his ‘Mr Bean-like’ dramatic facial expressions.

Before I proceed I must admit this is my first experience of Xerxes – not surprising since this is the first time the opera is being performed in New Zealand.

I was pleasantly surprised that unlike the tragic flavour of most operas, it was uplifting with a happy ending – a perfect match with the Auckland Arts Festival.

The NBR New Zealand Opera should be applauded for bringing an opera of this nature to audiences, particularly in light of recent trying times.  What a great way to start the year – well done NZ Opera!

And the vibrant costumes with Trelise Cooper’s trademark style was equally elevating keeping everyonemesmerised, including spouses that had obviously been dragged to the show by their missus.

To quote General Director of NZ Opera, Aidan Lang “There’s a real theatricality to Trelise’s fashion collections.”

NBR New Zealand Opera Xerxes
The costumes! The colours! The counter-tenors! Photo by Neil Mackenzie.

Cooper’s choice of hand-woven fabrics, with exquisitely ornate embroidery sourced directly from India, was spot on.  What colours didn’t she use?  You might ask.  Such a change to see the whole colour palette utilized.  This includes Romilda’s (Tiffany Speight) bright pink almost fuchsia cape, Atalanta’s (Amy Wilkinson) jade green dress with the plunging neckline and high slit, Xerxes regal purple and Romilda’s gold embroidered wedding cape – to mention a few.

Verryt’s light touch and restrained minimalist approachto set design is the perfect complement and ideal setting for Cooper’s no-holes-barred opulent creations. And Matt Scott’s ever-changing lighting hues skillfully depict the opera’s emotions while enhancing the stunning costumes.

If you’re not a regular operagoer, this Italian opera with English surtitles is the perfect place to start.  Its simple storyline and magnificent costumes are sufficient to draw you in and keep you thoroughly entertained.

The icing on the cake is of course Georg Friedrich Händel’s composition played in authentic Baroque style by the internationally acclaimed Lautten Compagney from Berlin, a group of Baroque musicians who have come to New Zealand especially to accompany Xerxes. Led by Wolfgang Katschner, the music is incredibly intuitive and spine tingling.And the decision not to compromise, using instruments like the theorbo (a lute that sounds like the harpsichord), the Baroque oboe, and violin has definitely paid off.  It’s a special treat to listen to Händel’s opera the way he originally intended.

Besides Cole’s exquisite vocals, Englishman William Purefoy (Xerxes’ brother Arsamene) is also a stand out counter tenor.

Again unlike most operas, where the bass is the male authority figure, it was refreshing for counter tenors to take their place singing with such purity of voice.  At one stage I closed my eyes to block out any distraction and it took me back to when I saw the Viennese Boys’ Choir.

Australian soprano Speight, who’s won many accolades for her portrayal of Musetta in 2008’s La bohème, was the perfect Romilda.  Not only was she pitch perfect she also has a regal air befitting a potential queen.

Seeing mezzo soprano Kristen Darragh (Amastre) dressed in men’s ‘swashbuckling’ clothes was a 360 degree turn from her strutting her stuff in a tight mini and fishnets as Zulma in The Italian Girl in Algiers (2009).

Once again in keeping with the high-spirited opera, the show is riddled with humourous moments.  The most memorable being bass Stephen Bennett (Elviro) dressed in drag where he wears one sock up and another one down adding to the comic relief.

My only criticism would be that the first half could have been about 10 minutes shorter as it dragged just a little, probably because the movement on stage was a tad static.

However the second part is anything but.  The farcical confusion in the vein of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing gives the audience many opportunities to giggle.  A highlight is Martin Snell’s (Ariodate) dancing across the stage with impeccable agility, which catches you by surprise considering his otherwise regimented character as leader of Xerxes’s army. 

Definitely a must see, especially if you’ve been teetering on wanting to experience opera and have never had the courage.  I guarantee a highly entertaining evening with amazing voices to boot!

 NBR New Zealand Opera’s Xerxes plays as part of the Auckland Arts Festival at the Civic Theatre until March 6th.

More information at the Auckland Arts Festival 2011

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