I'm struggling with what to say about the San Francisco Opera's production of Handel's Serse, or Xerxes, as it is billed here.
There are a number of pretty funny things about the production from the ENO in London. Apparently it has made the rounds. The main characters are dressed more or less as Handel's period. And then there are the gray people. I thought they might be garden statues, or anonymous chorus. My favorite bit was the green folding lawn chairs, shown above. They began their life folded flat on the floor.
At one point the back of the stage opens up on a desert landscape, and I thought I was back in Santa Fe. On the floor of the desert are the ruins of the ancient Persian city of Persepolis.
I think it might be important to understand that Serse was a failure when it first appeared in 1738. The music, if we choose not to blame the conductor, Patrick Summers, is a bit draggy and pompous.
Another problem is that four of the characters all have names that start with A:
Arsamenes, Xerxes' brother, sung by David Daniels,
Ariodates, Xerxes' general, sung by Wayne Tigges,
Atalanta, Ariodates' daughter, sung by Heidi Stober,
Amastris, Xerxes' betrothed, sung by Sonia Prina, seen also in Ariodante.
The production helped with this situation by introducing the characters during the overture. And not to forget Xerxes himself, sung by Susan Graham, and the other daughter of Ariodates, Romilda, sung by Lisette Oropesa.
Do we have to talk about the plot? Everything gets straightened out in the end.
Making it all worthwhile was the marvelous Susan Graham, who gets all the really good bits. She starts the opera with that great Handel aria "Ombra mai fu." Did you know it was about a tree? I should have known that. The other hit tune comes at the end where Xerxes knocks over a bunch of statues singing "Crude furie." This is only a hit tune because it's on Joyce DiDonato's Handel Mad Scenes album.