Isn’t it rich?

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 3, 2008

When Emanuel Krivine led Harold en Italie with the BSO five years ago, I found Ansell’s playing too much in love with its own velvet. This time it had more life, and after a leisurely beginning, Levine whipped the orchestra up to fever pitch.

Boston Baroque’s semi-staging of Handel’s opera Xerxes [Serse], one of his last Italian operas, isn’t going to make me forget the other time I saw it, when it was imported by the Boston Lyric Opera in 1996, with Craig Smith conducting the astonishing Lorraine Hunt (not yet Lieberson) in the complex title role and countertenor David Daniels as the king’s brother and romantic rival. Still, this new one was a creditable effort, staged with witty, understated updating by Paul Peers. (Two lovers had a frustrating argument on cellphones that kept losing their connection; batons became swords and bouquets of flowers.) And it had some beautiful and intelligent singing. Soprano Amanda Forsyth as Atalanta all but stole the show with her sparkling vocalism and sexy villainy. (Dressed in scarlet, she had a Sarah Palin wink and, ever on the lookout, slipped the conductor her phone number after her evil plot was exposed.) As the romantic heroine, Romilda, soprano Ava Pine, who sings mostly in Texas, is a major find, a touching actress with a mobile face and a secure, creamy, heart-melting tone. Mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand sang elegantly as Xerxes’s brother but wasn’t very convincingly male. As his/her comic servant, bass Michael Scarcelle was delightfully agile, in movement as well as voice. The star attraction was male soprano Michael Miniaci as the conflicted Xerxes. He dazzled in the fiery coloratura of his rage aria but lacked imaginative shading in his famous love song to a tree, “Ombra mai fu.” He never made Xerxes a believable, consistent, or sympathetic character. But he has a remarkable voice, and since the staging emphasized laughs over poignancy, it didn’t matter so much that one didn’t much care about what happened to him.

Martin Pearlman led the excellent period-instrument orchestra and chorus in a tight, lively, and stylish if not broadly expansive or infinitely flexible performance. He’s becoming a Handel conductor to reckon with. Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I left without feeling I knew what was making Handel’s pulse race when he composed this opera.

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