Il Xerse

Francesco Cavalli
Valle d'Itria Festival

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Carlo Vistoli (Xerse) and Nicolo Donini (Aristone) Credit: Clarissa Lapolla
Dioklea Hoxha (Adelante) and Carolina Lippo (Romilda) Credit: Clarissa Lapolla
The cast Credit: Clarissa Lapolla
Carlo Vistoli (Xerse) at the palace Credit: Clarissa Lapolla

Francesco Cavalli, a pupil of Monteverdi, was the leading opera composer of his day, and his Xerse of 1654, one of his most successful works, was typical of contemporary Venetian taste, with the serious alternating with farce, ending in a moral judgement on the vanity of power.

At a time when most plots were purely mythological, the story was taken from Herodotus, so is vaguely historical, at least in the fact that the Persian king Xerxes actually existed.

He plans to discard his lover Amastre to marry Romilda, previously engaged to his brother Arsamene, and orders the latter’s execution when he refuses to give her up. But due to a misunderstanding, Romilda’s father marries her to Arsamene anyway. Xerxes is furious, but re-enter Amastre, and stricken with remorse the king marries his old love.

That is the simple version. The actual libretto by is labyrinthine, a story of crossed love, intrigues, disguises and suspect letters, of kings, princes and servants.

Andrea Belli’s beautiful set, squeezed onto the small stage Teatro Verdi in Martina Franca, resembles the courtyard of a grand Oriental palace with multiple doors, with costumes by Giovanna Fiorentini that might have come from a book of fairy tales.

Highlights of the piece include two laments, one sung with admirable legato by Carlo Vistoli in the title role, the other movingly by Carolina Lippo as the doll-like Romilda—the latter reminiscent of that by Cavalli’s later contemporary Purcell. Lippo’s love duet with Gaia Petrone’s Arsamene, sung while lanterns swing beguilingly, provides a rare moment of tenderness amid the commedia dell’arte goings-on.

The cast give commendable performances throughout, especially considering the sparse orchestral writing for just two violins, basso obligato and few other instruments that often offers little parallel support for the singers.

Ekaterina Protsenko is an expressive Amastre, despite a troublesome moustache, and Dioklea Hoxha an imposing, scheming Adelanta. The plot is complicated enough but with Nicolo Donino as Romilda’s father Aristone, it’s hard to keep up with all those As who succeed each other in bewildering fashion in scenes often lasting just a minute or two.

The whole thing lasts nearly four hours in the original, cut here by an hour, mostly of the additional ballet music that Lully added, much to Cavalli’s annoyance, when it was performed for the wedding of the Sun King Louis XIV, and omitting the roles of a eunuch and two magicians.

It’s a challenge even so, to maintain interest for those without a particular love of early opera. The Opera Comique did so brilliantly in its zany, inventive 2019 production of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante. By comparison, Il Xerse, directed by Leo Muscato, can be funny to look at, but lacks the cheeky wit to make scenes come alive and give an edge to the characters. I wish they were not quite so well-behaved. A little magic from those sorcerers might have helped after all.

The Orchestra Barocca Modo Antiquo rolls along merrily with just the right level of balance for the singers, as conducted by Federico Maria Sardelli. The accompanying brochure is exemplary, and packed with information.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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