Handel Xerxes

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COMPOSERS: George Frederic Handel
LABELS: Arthaus Musik
ALBUM TITLE: Handel Xerxes
WORKS: Xerxes
PERFORMER: Ann Murray, Lesley Garrett, Valerie Masterson, Christopher Robson, Jean Rigby, Christopher Booth-Jones, Rodney Macann; ENO Orchestra & Chorus/Charles Mackerras; dir. Nicholas Hytner
CATALOGUE NO: 100077

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Handel was never forgotten in his adopted country. In 1784, the commemoration festivals for the 25th anniversary of his death began in Westminster Abbey. Over time, they grew until Messiah and Israel in Egypt filled the Crystal Palace, heaving with amateur choruses and bolstered with ophicleides and trombones. For the best part of two centuries, to speak of Handel in Britain was to speak of oratorio.

Nicholas Hytner’s 1985 English National Opera production of Xerxes was a landmark in the reassessment of Handel’s genius. This waspish post-modern staging, set amid the curios of Vauxhall Gardens and translated in the style of playwright William Congreve, was the first to demonstrate that a Handel opera could fill the Coliseum. Revivals followed, including this one, filmed for television in 1988 in a style that has aged less well than the singing but better than the Dynasty wigs sported by Xerxes (Ann Murray), his brother Arsamenes (Christopher Robson), and their trio of love-interests: Romilda (Valerie Masterson), Atalanta (Lesley Garrett) and Amastris (Jean Rigby).

By today’s standards, the orchestra sounds prim, the sopranos cautious. Conductor Sir Charles Mackerras understood Handel’s music intimately. (This is his edition.) But the playing here is less flamboyant and fluid than his 1959 recording of the Fireworks Music. Murray’s Xerxes is unfailingly elegant, whether serenading a plant in the shadow of Roubiliac’s statue of Handel, or pausing over a demitasse. Rigby is warm and direct. Less delicate of voice, Robson gives the most expressive performance; his Act II siciliano ‘Once we would kiss and play’ is as desolate as it is succinct.

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Anna Picard