The Civic – THE EDGE®, Auckland

02/03/2011 - 06/03/2011

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

15/03/2011 - 19/03/2011

Auckland Arts Festival 2011

Production Details

A co-production between The NBR New Zealand Opera and Victorian Opera in Melbourne, in association with Auckland Arts Festival, this new production of Handel’s Xerxes is the first professional, fully staged Handel opera that has ever been presented to New Zealand audiences.

Xerxes is funny, poignant and fast moving, and with the timeless themes of love, rivalry and vices being overcome by courage and loyalty, has plenty to identify with in life today.

In Xerxes, Handel has created a stream of sublime melodies, one hit after another, including one of opera’s most beautiful and recognisable arias, “Ombra mai fu”, the famous Largo. This gorgeous music is authentically brought to life by one of the world’s finest early music orchestras, the Lautten Compagney, conducted by Wolfgang Katschner, who are coming from Berlin especially to accompany this production.

Alongside this award winning orchestra is a stellar cast. In the core principal roles Australians Tobias Cole (counter tenor) and Tiffany Speight (soprano) sing Xerxes and Romilda. English counter tenor William Purefoy takes the role of Arsamene, Australian soprano Amy Wilkinson is Atalanta, and returning from overseas are New Zealanders Kristen Darragh (mezzo soprano) and Martin Snell (bass) to sing Amastre and Ariodate respectively. Australian Roger Hodgman is directing, with New Zealander John Verryt behind the set design.

Glamour and opulence are also prerequisites to capturing the true essence of a Handel opera, so the cast will be stepping out in fabulous costumes designed by the darling of New Zealand fashion, Trelise Cooper. 

Auckland – Civic Theatre, THE EDGE
Wed 2, Thu 3, Sat 5 March – 7.30pm; Sun 6 March – 5pm
Wellington – St James Theatre
Tue 15, Fri 18, Sat 19 March – 7.30pm; Wed 16 March – 6pm

: $49.50 to $187.50. Concessions available for benefactors, senior citizens, students and group bookings. Service fees apply.

Bookings: The NBR NZ Opera Box Office, Tel (09) 379 4068 or (04) 499 8343, or:
Wellington: Ticketek, Tel 0800 TICKETEK (0800 842 538) or www.ticketek.co.nz
Auckland: The Edge, Tel 0800 BUYTICKETS (0800 289 842) or www.the-edge.co.nz

Further information: www.nzopera.com    

Xerxes: Tobias Cole 
Romilda: Tiffany Speight 
William Purefoy 
Atalanta: Amy Wilkinson 
Amastre: Kristen Darragh 
Ariodate: Martin Snell 
Elviro: Stephen Bennett 

ConductorWolfgang Katschner
DirectorRoger Hodgman
Set DesignerJohn Verryt
Costume DesignerTrelise Cooper
Lighting DesignerMatt Scott

Accompanied by the Lautten Compagney
With the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus 

Sheer skill and enjoyment here

Review by John Button 17th Mar 2011

This production is the first full staging of a Handel opera in New Zealand, and even given that such ‘authentic’ productions are common in Europe, this is one of the few that uses counter tenors in the roles of both the brothers, Xerxes and Arsamene.

More usually a female takes the role of Xerxes and a counter tenor that of Arasmene, or vice-versa. Of course in Handel’s time both roles would have been taken by castrati, but these days counter tenors just have to do. And in this case, with some small reservations, they do very well indeed.

Both Tobias Cole and William Purefoy have beautifully formed counter tenor voices and all the technique needed. Both are accomplished actors, contributing to the finely drawn comedy and, like every one else in the cast, subtle enough to prevent the comedic descending into farce.

In fact the production as a whole succeeds brilliantly, marvellously underpinned by the playing of the German early instrumental ensemble Lautten Compagney. They lift everything to a level that no modern instrument orchestra could match, with playing of great rhythmic certainty and a never overweighted attack.

With the added piquancy of recorders, lute, theorbo and harpsichord, mercifully audible, they support singing that is always superbly stylish and even in quality.

Not one of the singers stands out above the rest, yet each offers singing of supreme confidence, and given the difficulty of much that Handel throws at them, the ease of execution, and the wonderful accuracy, is astonishing.

At random one remembers the raging duets between Xerxes and Arsamene and Arsamene and Romilda and the temperament, both vocal and dramatic, of Tiffany Speight, Amy Wilkinson and Kristen Darragh and the sonorous bass, and nice sense of the comedic, from Martin Snell. In the buffo role of Elviro Stephen Bennett has huge fun and the chorus is, as usual, vibrancy itself.

I loved the Moorish styled set, and the wonderfully interactive lighting that reflects in a rainbow of colours the moods and emotions displayed on stage. I didn’t mind the costumes of Trelise Cooper. That they were a completely anachronistic mish-mash might worry some, but such is the sheer skill and enjoyment on display at the service of a great composer, that many brought up on The Messiah and The Water Music alone will be in for a delicious surprise.
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Sublime blend of voices and orchestra

Review by Paul Diamond 17th Mar 2011

First performed in 1738, Xerxes has finally made it to New Zealand, in the first fully staged professional production of any of the 47 operas written by Handel. The wait has been worthwhile – this production is splendid.

Xerxes is very loosely based on the life of King Xerxes, an ancient Persian ruler. The opera has been compared to Mozart’s work, and Xerxes is reminiscent of the Count Almaviva in Marriage of Figaro, thwarted in his attempts to interrupt the course of true love. 

The opera begins with one of Handel’s best known arias: Ombra mai fù, an ode sung by the King in praise of a Plane Tree, also familiar as Handel’s largo. Counter-tenor Tobias Cole is a fine Xerxes, and his vocal range is on display in the spectacular Crude Furie Degl’ Orridi Abissi near the end of Act 3. 

In this production his brother Arsamene is ably played by another counter-tenor, William Purefoy, a good foil to Cole’s over the top performance. Both men are competing for the affections of Romilda, played by Tiffany Speight, whose glorious singing is a highlight of this production. 

Romilda’s mischievous sister Atalanta, angling to snare Arsamene for herself, is brought to life by Amy Wilkinson. With her expressive face, and stage presence, Wilkinson is wonderful to watch, and her rendition of Un Cenno Leggiadretto, where Atalanta outlines her battle plan for winning her man – “where everything else fails, guile will work” – is terrific. 

All seven soloists are strong in this production, together with the chorus, who are in fine voice, for the limited role they play in this opera.

German early instrument ensemble Lautten Compagney, under the direction of Wolfgang Katschner, accompany the opera, and this is another reason why this production shouldn’t be missed. It’s a rare opportunity to hear Baroque music played on period instruments, and the performances in this production combine seamlessly with the singing, bringing alive the drama of the opera. 

Also important in the mix are Matt Scott’s lighting design and John Verryt’s minimalist monochrome set, an effective backdrop for Trelise Cooper’s wonderfully ornate and colourful costumes.

Handel operas are difficult to stage, placing huge demands on singers, and musicians. Audiences are also less familiar with baroque opera, with their classical settings, lengthy arias, and different conventions from later operas. But when the productions can pull it off, the effect is sublime.

This staging delivers on many different levels, and is a sexy, humorous romp delivered at a cracking pace, and a joy to behold from start to finish. Don’t miss it – who knows when we’ll see another fully staged professional Handel opera produced here.

Note that the Lautten Compagney are performing a concert at 6pm on Thursday 17 March at the St James Theatre, to raise funds for the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal. Details here: http://www.stjames.co.nz/handel_with_care_2011 
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Brave, stylish and historic

Review by William Dart 03rd Mar 2011

Heroes don’t come much kookier than Xerxes. He may be the King of Persia but he opens Handel’s opera by extolling the beauties of a plane tree; a man who, as one character comments, “is aroused by a rough trunk.”

For three hours, NBR New Zealand Opera’s production ofXerxes transports us to an eighteenth-century Neverland. A libido-driven cast frolic in, around and about John Verryt’s elegant colonnade in Trelise Cooper finery, with director Roger Hodgman ensuring the pace of a good Broadway musical. [More]
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Funny and fabulous production of the highest musical integrity

Review by Penny Dodd 03rd 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.

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. 
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