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Handel: Xerxes / Murray, Masterson, Robson, Mackerras

Handel / Murray / Garrett / Masterson
Release Date: 03/27/2012 
Label:  Arthaus Musik   Catalog #: 100077  
Composer:  George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Valerie MastersonChristopher RobsonAnn MurrayLesley Garrett,   ... 
Conductor:  Sir Charles Mackerras
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English National Opera OrchestraEnglish National Opera Chorus
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



HANDEL Xerxes Charles Mackerras, cond; Ann Murray ( Xerxes ); Valerie Masterson ( Romilda ); Christopher Robson ( Arsamenes ); Jean Rigby ( Amastris ); Lesley Garrett ( Atalanta ); Christopher Booth-Jones ( Elviro ); Rodney Macann ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Ariodantes ); English Natl Op O & Ch ARTHAUS MUSIK 100077 (DVD: 186:00) Live: London 1988


This is a reissue of a famous 1988 production released at least twice before, on VHS by Kultur in 1997 and then on DVD by Image Entertainment in 2000. Copies of the older DVD are selling on Amazon for $188.90 (new) and $170.92 (used), even though, right beneath it, is the listing for the new one!


I can see why Arthaus decided to reissue it. For lovers of Baroque opera, both Nicholas Hytner’s staging and the performance are fairly traditional. Aside from using a countertenor (Robson) for Arsamenes, it doesn’t employ many facets of historically informed practice. Murray, Masterson, Rigby, and Macann all have full voices (both Murray and Masterson sang in operas ranging from Mozart to Rossini). At the time, Mackerras was considered the sina qua non of British conductors for virtually everything but especially for Mozart, which was one of his specialties. He used a reduced orchestra but didn’t buy into the concept of non-vibrato strings (good for him!). The problem is that his conducting sounds stiff and foursquare; it’s terribly metronomic, has no give-and-take, and eschews any gradual changes of dynamics. Thus, at any given point the orchestra is either soft or loud, but does not graduate from one to the other in either direction.


One of the most amusing—and truthful—things in this video is the crawl at the beginning: “The context of this opera is so very easy, that it wou’d be troubling the reader to give him a long argument to explain it. Some imbecilities, and the temerity of Xerxes (such as his being deeply enamor’d of a plane tree, and the building of a bridge over the Hellespont to unite Asia and Europe) are the basis of the story; the rest is fiction.” There’s no mention in the notes if this was written during Handel’s time, but if it was it is certainly truth in advertising!


Judging the singers right from the outset, Murray has a loose vibrato (read: flutter) in her opening recitative and aria, which just happens to be the most famous piece in the entire opera (“Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fu”). She does, however, regain control for the soft singing near the end of the aria, and is better thereafter. Arsamenes enters, and as he is a countertenor and the King is a mezzo, we know right away that we’re suspending dramatic reality. Robson does, however, have a fine voice. But then we hear, coming from the back of the stage, the most marvelous soprano voice, a voice of not only rare beauty and technical finish, but also one of those unusual British sopranos with metal or ping in the upper range. This is Valerie Masterson as Romilda and, vocally, this is her opera. Your jaw fairly drops to hear her spin out the most effortless legato you are liable to hear in your lifetime, and it is difficult to hear where she takes a breath. Masterson also seems to understand the dramatic nature of this vocal recital in costume, as her acting basically consists of very elegant yet obvious arm-and-hand positions, as if she were Betty Furness selling a new Frigidaire on TV (for those of you boomers who remember Betty). Also listen to the way she sings the aria “No Stain Can Blemish”; this is Baroque singing at its apex. For some unknown reason, all of the King’s attendants and guards have shaved heads with either light gray or light green faces (and heads).


One of the more interesting aspects of the performance is the inclusion of Lesley Garrett. Those of us who lived through the 1980s remember how she was packaged and sold in this country as a sort of sexpot minx with a voice. Ironically, that’s the sort of role she plays, but truthfully, she sounds better here than on those CDs and her diction is among the clearest. Probably because this was an English National Opera production, the libretto was translated from Italian to English, but except for Garrett and Christopher Booth-Jones (as Elviro), you can scarcely make out more than a few words, which makes me happy to have English subtitles. (One customer on Amazon complained that in the original DVD release, there were no subtitles and he couldn’t understand a word.) Jean Rigby, as Amastris (an apposite character to Xerxes, as she is cast as a woman in drag), has one of the strongest voices in the cast, not terribly pretty in timbre but with a good cut up top and the most solid coloratura technique of any of the principals. A touch of humor comes in act II, when Elviro enters disguised as a flower-seller in order to smuggle a love letter from Arsamene to Romilda: He’s so loud and obnoxious about selling his flowers that the King’s guard removes him from the courtyard.


Xerxes ( Serse ) was a bit of a hit when it first appeared in 1738, but today it is fairly middling Handel, certainly not as great musically (or dramatically) as Amadis di Gaula, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, or Radamisto . The sound quality of the DVD, though probably improved from the original VHS tape, is not really state-of-the-art even for 1988, but Arthaus did a fine job of making it sound about as good as one could hope for. If you enjoy this opera, you’ll surely enjoy this presentation since it is relatively lively and well sung and acted.


FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley


George Frideric Handel
XERXES
Sung in English

Xerxes – Ann Murray
Romilda – Valerie Masterson
Arsamenes – Christopher Robson
Amastris – Jean Rigby
Atalanta – Lesley Garrett
Elviro – Christopher Booth-Jones
Ariodates – Rodney Macann

English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Martin Handley)
Charles Mackerras, conductor

Nicholas Hytner, stage director
David Fielding, set designer
Paul Pyant, lighting designer

Recorded live from the English National Opera, 1988

Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, French, English, Italian, Dutch, Greek
Running time: 186 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
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Works on This Recording

1.
Serse, HWV 40 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Valerie Masterson (Soprano), Christopher Robson (Countertenor), Ann Murray (Mezzo Soprano),
Lesley Garrett (Soprano), Jean Rigby (Mezzo Soprano), Christopher Booth-Jones (Baritone),
Rodney Macann (Bass)
Conductor:  Sir Charles Mackerras
Orchestra/Ensemble:  English National Opera Orchestra,  English National Opera Chorus
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1738; London, England 
Language: English 

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