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Lyric Opera Theatre performs one of Handel’s last Italian operas – Xerxes

February 14, 2003

WHAT: Lyric Opera Theatre opera: Xerxes

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 28, March 1, 2, 7, 8; 2:30 p.m., March 9

WHERE: Evelyn Smith Music Theatre, Music Building, 40 E. Gammage Parkway, Tempe

TICKETS: $14 general, $12 faculty/staff/seniors, $5 students

INFORMATION: 480-965-6447

Unrequited love, comedic misunderstandings, mistaken identities and Stephen Wadsworth’s libretto translation all contribute to the ASU production of Handel’s Xerxes performed by the Herberger College School of Music’s award-winning Lyric Opera Theatre.

The opera will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28, March 1, 2, 7 and 8, with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on March 9. The venue is the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the Music Building on the main ASU campus in Tempe, 40 E. Gammage Parkway. Tickets are $14 general, $12 faculty/staff/seniors and $5 students. Call the Herberger College Box Office, 480-965-6447. A pre-performance lecture will be held at 1 p.m. before the March 9 matinee.

Lyric Opera Theatre chose to use the English translation and adaptation by Wadsworth, which has wowed audiences across the country from New York to Seattle; New York City Opera is slated to perform Wadsworth’s translation and adaptation of Xerxes in Spring 2004. According to The New Yorker magazine, “Stephen Wadsworth’s ingenious translation of the Italian text updates the language without undercutting the bucolic innocence of this marital comedy.” The Wall Street Journal review states that the Wadsworth production is “One of the most compelling operatic and theatrical experiences to be had anywhere.”

The ASU production is under the direction of noted director Dale Dreyfoos, professor of music, and associate director/ resident stage director for the Lyric Opera Theatre. It features an orchestra under the direction of John Metz, professor of harpsichord and director of early music studies at ASU. Metz and the musicians are recreating what 18th-century audiences would hear when attending a performance of Xerxes at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Handel was the institution’s composer in residence in the early to mid 1700s and wrote many of his Italian operas during that period.

The LOT production of Xerxes is set in the 18th century, approximately at the same time as the work’s premiere in 1738,” explains Dreyfoos. “The set, designed by Gary Campbell, is a mixture of 18th-century balance and proportion, with architecture that evokes the feeling of the Orient (as the work was originally set in a mythical ancient Persia).”

Xerxes was one of the last operas that Handel wrote before turning to the English oratorio genre. “The story is fairly typical of the 18th century with quarreling lovers, characters in disguise, characters pretending to be the opposite gender, a pompous father, and a sly, drunken servant,” notes Dreyfoos. “A point of confusion for the audience may be the fact that many women are playing men’s roles – as many of the roles were written for Castrati (male sopranos – boys who were “surgically altered” to maintain their high soprano voices, but had the power of adult male voices – who became the superstars of their day). In order to keep the authentic vocal ranges of these parts – today, castrato roles are either played by women or countertenors (surgically “unaltered” male altos who sing primarily in their falsetto register). For the Lyric Opera Theatre production, the original castrato roles will be sung by female mezzo-sopranos.

“Handel’s music succeeds best when the excesses of romantic performance style are kept out of the way,” says Metz. To that end, the singers have been working since last fall on 18th-century bel canto style – notably vocal flexibility, dynamic variety and a delivery that comes closer to speaker. Xerxes calls for a full orchestra brass, double reeds, recorders and two harpsichords.

“Handel was a master of musical characterization – and the formula of alternating arias and recitatives, brilliantly outlines the character’s innermost feelings and develops the characters in a way that allows the audience to really understand what motivates each character,” says Dreyfoos. “From this ‘psychological’ aspect, these 18th century operas really allow the singers to explore the multi-faceted aspect of their characters – even more so than many of the standard operas from the 19th and 20th centuries. The succession of one beautiful aria after the next has really made this piece a pleasure to work on. I’m hopeful that the audience will feel the same.” 

Media Contact:
Mary Brennan