Opera Theatre Company presents Handel’s Xerxes

WITH ITS instantly recognisable opening aria sung to a tree (‘Ombra Mai Fu’ ) and a storyline bristling with thwarted passions, Xerxes is arguably Handel’s greatest opera.

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, Opera Theatre Company stage the Irish premiere of Xerxes in a touring production which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday at 8pm.

Xerxes was first performed in London in 1738 but was withdrawn after only five performances and remained forgotten for 250 years. In 1985 to mark the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth, it was triumphantly revived for the English National Opera.

Xerxes’ plot concerns the attempts of Persia’s King Xerxes to woo the beautiful Romilda, who just so happens to be in love with his brother Arsamenes.

There is trouble ahead as Romilda’s manipulative little sister Atlanta has also set her sights on Arsamenes. Meanwhile, Xerxes’ jilted fiancée, Amastris stalks the scene, dressed as a man and looking for opportunities to wreak havoc and enjoy her revenge.

The production is directed by Michael Moxham - making his OTC debut - and on Monday afternoon he took time out from a technical rehearsal to discuss his staging.

“I didn’t want our production to be solely about the love story in the opera,” he says. “I was interested in looking a bit more at the character of Xerxes, and delving into why he destroys everything around him.

“I’d been reading Vivian Green’s The Madness Of Kings which talks about the ways in which rulers who are crowned young often develop a kind of schizophrenia due to the pressure and stress of their position. Then there’s the idea of the whole nature of power and its sexual allure which is very much present in Xerxes.

“I’ve opted to set the opera in a kind of Napoleonic era and it seems to work really well. There are interesting parallels between Napoleon and Xerxes; there’s a story that Napoleon’s brother took his wife to visit the emperor and Napoleon was so taken with the wife that he promptly despatched his brother to some distant military campaign so he could be free to seduce her. That’s exactly the kind of thing you would find Xerxes doing, and sibling rivalry is of course one of the main thematic strands in the opera.”

Musical accompaniment (on period instruments ) is provided by a string quartet and harpsichord.

“These instruments provide a great ‘swell’ to the sound without ever drowning out the singers,” Moxham notes. “Where baroque operas tend to have a ‘stand and deliver’ style of presentation we’ve put in a lot of visual business which gives it more zip. There’s also a lot of humour in the piece; it can be very funny. I think it’s the kind of show that will appeal a lot to young people.”

Moxham is also full of praise for the input of designer Sarah Bacon.

“Sarah started out as an assistant stage manager with OTC and has worked her way up,” he says. “This is her first time designing for a full-length opera and she’s done a lovely job. The setting is this luxurious 19th century spa where you have various generals and emperors coming to relax. There are all kinds of little visual treats within the design. Sarah is a young Irish designer of great ability and promise.”

Xerxes’ cast includes internationally acclaimed Irish mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm, Natasha Jouhl, Rebekah Coffey, and Brendan Collins.

Sung in English, the production’s music direction is by Andrew Synnott and the captivating score is performed by Opera Theatre Company’s ensemble. Lighting design is by The Irish Times Theatre Awards 2009 nominee Kevin Treacy.

For tickets contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.

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