We scheduled only one visit to the San Francisco opera this season and it looks like we picked the right one: The SFO production of Handel's Xerxes is a winner--a good-natured evening of easy listening. It's not hard to figure out why X is (as they say) Handel's second most popular opera, after (the far more ambitious and complex) Julius Caesar.
"Tunes?" Our goodbuddy Michael channels the composer--"You think I'm out of tunes? I'll show ya tunes." And that was just the second intermission, with an hour left to go. It's almost is if Handel, jaded after some forty of these opera thingies, decided it was time just to be silly. Apparently it didn't work all that well for him. Evidently the audience was put off by the prevalence of short, punchy one-liner-type arias, in lieu of the standard more ponderous da capo, Sir Charles Burney, the music historian, said it lacked decorum and he's certainly right about that. All of which may explain why it stayed off for nearly 200 years; also why it has bounced back in an era where decorum is perhaps not so highly valued.
Aside from sensibility, there is also a problem with casting. X is not just a start turn. You need six, maybe seven strong voices to carry it off, and you don't want any one trampling the others. The SFO staging offers Susan Graham and David Daniels as marquee talent and happily they do not dominate. Michael (again) said "boy, the soubrettes almost painted the star into a corner here," which I think a bit extreme. But it is true that you got flashier and more assertive performances from (at least) Lisette Oropesa and Sonia Prina than you do from Graham. Graham certainly has all the subtlety and complexity you could want but you have to pay attention; she doesn't really command. Daniels--funny thing about Daniels, he's a good actor and a technically unobjectionable singer but you can never quite remember him 20 minutes after you left the theatre (all of which convinces Mrs. Buce that Michael and I were at some other theatre).
The production: evidently it has been around for a while, but it was a good choice. Whoever deserves the credit made it just hokey enough: they didn't pay any more respect to the text than it deserves, and they didn't (except once or twice) reach out for silliness beyond what was needed.
The orchestra was uncharacteristically muted for a baroque performance. I suppose this was somebody's choice and I grant you can get too much of that wire-brush-in-a-bald-head obtrusiveness you find in so many baroque performances. Still, I guess I am just used to a bit more scratch and squeak. In the end though, no matter: this is a performance with absolutely no redeeming social value and in context, what's not to like?