Envy is a forgiveable sin when visiting France. As if the food and wine weren't enough to get one's mouth watering, when the French do period opera they really do period opera. In the last two months Paris has seen three fully staged period-instrument productions: Agrippina with René Jacobs and Concerto Köln, Les Troyens with John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire, and Xerxes with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. And what do we get? The Royal Opera House's half-hearted Orlando with Harry Bickett and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, then a long wait until next year's Glyndebourne. Pah! But hold on to your passports. When it comes to Xerxes, next week's semi-staged performance at the Barbican could prove more compelling and whole than director Gilbert Deflo's Champs-Elysées production.
As a pretty period piece, Deflo's lighter-than-air staging works well enough. William Orlandi's graceful papery set designs and delicate period costumes combine the precision and elegance of 18th-century penmanship with Persian exotica; an effect that mimics what Chinoiserie did for Chinese motifs but somehow ends up conjuring a rather tamer, more domestic part of Handel's century than the man himself was alive to see. Is this appropriate? As Deflo observes in his programme essay, this is an opera where pomp and empire take second place to an intimate portrait of Xerxes (Anne Sofie von Otter) as libertine and sensualist. Quite. But what Deflo has left unremarked in his decorous mise-en-scène is the common factor between Xerxes the despot and Xerxes the lover who can't take no for an answer: power. Power is what balances the rough comedy offered by Elviro (Antonio Abete), what generates tension between the king and his brother and romantic rival Arsamene (Lawrence Zazzo), and explains the passivity of Romilda (Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz); a character first heard lampooning the king's luxurious aria to a tree Ombra mai fu, and one who might well, were her king as dotty or delirious as Deflo would have it, continue to mock him. Crucially, Xerxes's mad-boy/bad-boy power is also what attracts us, the audience, to him - an aspect that one might expect a director who notes the similarities between Elviro and Don Giovanni's Leporello to emphasise.
It's long been my opinion that Handel's operas need a good deal more translation than his oratorios. But though Deflo does nothing to develop dramatic tension or subtext on stage, power still dominates Xerxes. It darts and bursts from every note that von Otter sings. How much of this is characterisation and how much the natural effect of watching an artist at the peak of her dramatic and musical intelligence is impossible to judge but von Otter's performance is electric. Petulant, graceful, rageful, wild, seductive and voracious, her Xerxes seems to be a summation of musical experience; absorbing lieder, opera, jazz and sacred idioms into one indefatigable musical entity. The old hiccups with coloratura are gone, her range is secure, direct and even throughout, the colours rich and intense and true. At the other end of their careers - and less able to counter-balance the lack of stage direction - are Zazzo (whose bright, eloquent, virile and properly operatic counter-tenor now seems to set to eclipse the rest of his generation), Norberg-Schulz (beautiful of sound if unintelligible in Italian), Silvia Tro Santafé (coping admirably with Amastre's subterranean tessitura), and the extremely satisfying support team of Sandrine Piau and Giovanni Furlanetto (an excellent Atalanta and Ariodate), and Abete (a natural comedian). Which leaves only Christie and the orchestra of Les Arts Florissants, a unit whose understanding of Handel's unique balance of humours is absolute. The playing is faultless, the continuo unparalleled, the tutti sound - with an unusually large cello section - dark and honeyed. Christie's instinctive pacing of the drama, most obviously Act II's breathless lurch from farce to tragedy, is the antithesis of Deflo's superficial staging; a Xerxes to relish and remember, whichever side of the Channel you hear it.
If Handel had Caffarelli in mind as he wrote Xerxes, who was Samuel Barber thinking of while writing Vanessa? The official answer is Maria Callas - though Eleanor Steber took the role at the 1958 premiere - but I've a sneaking feeling that he may have been day-dreaming about Joan Crawford. Neo-Romanticism be damned! Vanessa isn't an opera at all. It's a "women's picture" with ländlers.
This may seem an ungrateful verdict on a work that has been called "the first great American opera"; a soubriquet that, lest we get too excited, has likewise been attached to any number of works from Treemonisha to Nixon in China. I should also point out that I'm not suggesting that Barber's score resembles a movie soundtrack per se. (Though he dipped his spoon in the same late-Romantic, early-Expressionist pot as Max Steiner and the other great film-score writers, Barber used its sonorities very differently.) But having heard the most luxurious cast - Christine Brewer, Susan Graham, William Burden, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Neal Davies - perform this weepy melodrama in concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin at the Barbican, the parallels are unavoidable. Gloomy gothick matriarchs? Gadfly suitors? Giddy engagements? Incestuous love-triangles? Illicit liaisons? Tearful renunciations? Mistaken identities? Hidden pregnancies? Skating parties? Suicide attempts? Bad dialogue? It's a "women's picture".
Sections of the score are rather glamorous in a lush, antique, over-written manner; with shreds of Tchaikovsky, Puccini and Strauss pinned to its slender shoulders like an overwrought corsage. But it's not Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Gian Carlo Menotti is not James Agee. Or Dylan Thomas. Or Thornton Wilder. Or Stephen Spender. (All of whom were potential librettists for Barber's first opera.) Indeed, the unnatural naturalism of Menotti's quasi-conversational libretto is perhaps its worst fault, as each character uses the others' names as obsessively as an estate agent fresh from a customer relations course. Hence a typical exchange might run; "Vanessa?" "Yes, Erika?" "Vanessa, are you going to bed?" "Yes, Erika, I am going to bed." "Goodnight, Vanessa!" "Goodnight, Erika!" The opera's second-worst fault is that each character - unlike any estate agent that I've met - has their own orchestral motif which is repeated each and every time his or her name is mentioned! Which meant that Vanessa (Brewer), Erika (Graham) and I (Picard) got to bed very, very late last Saturday night. What can I say? I'm glad I've finally heard Vanessa, glad that it's ticked off the list of operatic rarities, and profoundly grateful that there weren't even more characters to bid goodnight. Brewer, Burden, Wyn-Rogers, Davies and, most especially, Graham were magnificent, Slatkin was stiff, the BBCSO uncommonly loud. Rarely has such talent - and I include the Samuel Barber who wrote Knoxville - been lavished on such lurid nonsense.
'Xerxes': Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), Friday