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Updates from the 2011 Artistic DirectorElisabeth EastherSchools Review CompetitionReviews
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Funny and Fabulous Production of the Highest Musical Integrity

By - 3 Mar 2011
"This 2011 production of Xerxes is the first professional staging of an opera by Handel in New Zealand. Handel wrote over 40 operas and was a major force in the precarious and difficult opera world of London. Xerxes first appeared at the Kings Theatre, Haymarket, in 1738."

Reviewed by Penny Dodd, 3 Mar 2011
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"Xerxes is loosely based on the historical character King Xerxes of Persia. It appears to be true that he was enamoured of both a plane tree and his brother's sweetheart. But historical truth or not, this opera is more of a comedy (opera seria with funny parts), and it could be set in Persia in 480BC or nowhere in particular, on a beautifully elegant set by John Verryt.

The set, an arc of elegant cloisters and some multi purpose movable pieces, is spare and effective. Painted sky blue and cloud white, it has a far pavilion backdrop perhaps hinting at the presence of the upper classes. The set is lit by Matt Scott in the vibrant colours of strong emotion and also the luscious green blues of water, and brilliantly sets off the stunning costumes by Trelise Cooper. 

The costume setting seems to be both non specific historical and contemporary. The king is dressed as a king should be, with purple robe, sash and bling, and full glam crown. The general is dressed rather in the manner of Napoleon. The women are all variations on fabulous; Romilda dazzles in a hot pink and jade lined coat over a golden yellow embroidered shift, topped off by contemporary high heeled red shoes. The chorus is more subtly attired, but each piece is individually designed, and combines to pleasing effect. 

As we took our seats in the wonderfully over-ornate Civic, I immediately spotted the orchestra pit, raised to such a height that the musicians could be both seen and heard; an integral and vital part of the show, in fact. This elevation allows for a great connection between pit and stage, and a wonderful blend of sound.

The authentic instruments, and the players and conductor Wolfgang Katschner's attention to stylistic detail and performance practice of the late Baroque period is captivating. The little recorder, the full-bodied bowing, and the full continuo section with harpsichord, lute and theorbo have me completely convinced. The sound they produce works wonderfully well with the voice. This is truly the best way to fully appreciate opera from this period. 

And what voices! This evening at the opera is about the voices, and we are treated to a stunning vocal display from all the principals. The counter tenor sound does shock initially. Though we hear men singing in falsetto all the time in contemporary culture, we aren't much used to it in the opera house. Tobias Cole as Xerxes is simply astonishingly good. His counter tenor is a full-bodied sound with a glassy ring to the tone, and his facility over the florid passages is remarkable.

William Purefoy as Arsamene is also a counter tenor, singing the role of the brother more usually sung by a mezzo. His is a different sound, and is at its best in his solo work. His acting deserves special mention, as the younger brother of the king he is a delight. 

Martin Snell as Ariodate impresses with impeccable phrasing and his commanding bass voice, and he also takes the choreographic prize for a delightful display of twinkle toes, in between passages of florid semiquavers. 

Tiffany Speight is a glorious Romilda, vibrant in both voice and characterisation. Amy Wilkinson has her special moments as Atalanta, and makes the most of them with her pure and beautiful soprano. Kirsten Darragh, as Amastre, singing in the low part of her range, makes quite an impact as the lowest voice we hear after the two counter tenors have sung. Stephen Bennett, as Elviro, is terrific in voice and character; he has a great grip on the comedy of the role.

NBR New Zealand Opera is to be congratulated on a fine production. It is such a wonderful opportunity to enjoy Handel on the theatre stage. I found this production to be a distinguished performance of the highest musical integrity, and it's totally entertaining, and such a joy. It's funny and it's fabulous. Not to be missed."


Auckland Arts Festival 2011
Opera in Three Acts by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by Bononcini, after Stampiglia
Sung in Italian with English surtitles
Conductor: Wolfgang Katschner
Director: Roger Hodgman
NBR New Zealand Opera
A co-production with Victorian Opera
In association with Auckland Arts Festival

at The Civic - THE EDGE®, Auckland
From 2 Mar 2011 to 6 Mar 2011


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