It is unusual to hear an Italian opera with recitatives in Hungarian (no subtitles in any language for the recitatives), but an even odder intrepidity in theatergoing presents itself when a principal is injured too soon before the performance to be replaced by something other than a stand in who acts and mouths the lines while the injured singer performs from the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, the Hungarian State Opera’s staging of Handel’s Xerxes, which dates from 2008, joined the international roster of efforts to restore the eighteenth-century composer to the repertoire.
Xerxes is a typically Handelian work in that it reduces a towering historical figure – in this case the famous Persian king who tried to conquer Ancient Greece – to a melodramatic figure whose love problems are magnified or at least made more identifiable by his greatness in the broader historical context. The opera is unusual in its relative brevity and inclusion of a comic element, personified by the factotum and go-between Elviro. Although these qualities doomed it to relative failure in Handel’s own milieu, it is exactly the type of story that succeeds in our contemporary culture, besieged as it is by romantic comedies. To make a complicated plot simple, or attempting to do so, Xerxes pursues his vassal’s daughter, Romilda, who is loved by his brother, Arsamene. Arsamene is in turn loved by Romilda’s sister, Atalanta. The king’s ex-fiancée Amastre, who still loves Xerxes, disguises herself as a man to manipulate the characters to get what she wants. Through a comedy of errors, she is able to win back a repentant Xerxes, while Romilda and Arsamene are happily united and Atalanta, who had attempted some manipulation of her own, goes off to find someone else.
The State Opera’s artistic director Balazs Kovalik delivered a production set in a caricature of modern Iran. Most of the action centers around a functional but ugly apartment building of the type familiar to anyone who has visited the Middle East. In homage to the Islamic Republic’s recent history, the building is covered by the image of a multi-story Shah-like figure, complete with sunglasses that recall Qadafi. The characters sport casual but high-style outfits, sometimes with a military dimension. Vehicles are important, and we have progressively more sophisticated ones transporting the cast around, from a sports car in the opening scene (it knocks down the plane tree Xerxes is meant to contemplate) to a World War I-era airplane from which Xerxes drops bombs on conspirators, to a modern warship whose bow enters the stage only to invite its casually comedic sinking. The production breaks the fourth wall from the first moments of the overture, during which conductor Peter Oberfrank enters from the audience and hops over the divider to take the podium. Later in the work characters enter the stalls to confide the feelings of their arias to amused spectators.
Hungary has a reserve of well-trained singers who are highly skilled in both the opera seria repertoire and ensemble singing. Andrea Melath, a talented mezzo-soprano who sings predominantly in Budapest, approached the title role with verve and talent. “Ombra mai fu,” the opera’s first and most famous aria, resonated with plaintive charm. Gabriella Fodor’s fine soprano endearingly engaged the part of Romilda. Countertenor Peter Barany’s Arsamene proved that the singer has a great future if he is judicious enough to keep his tones balanced. Bernadett Wiedemann’s Amastre stole the show, by turns outraged and enamored. Beatrix Fodor’s injury kept the voice of Atalanta in the orchestra pit, but her voice pleasantly filled the part to Zsuzsanna Bazsinka’s acting. Andras Habetler’s Elviro talented bass was a bit too buffoonish, but this was probably more the fault of the production, which at one point had him swallowed by shark, from which he later escaped with the help of a diving mask and snorkel. I could only think of the famous “land shark” skit from Saturday Night Live when it was fresh and young. Oberfrank’s conducting was serviceable with a much reduced orchestra.