The operatic Xerse that most people know is the one Handel composed in 1738; before this Festival Valle d'Itria production, very few people knew that in 1655 Francesco Cavalli had his own Il Xerse performed in Venice. It was popular in its day to the point that the composer was requested to perform it five years later in Paris, at the wedding of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain.

Carlo Vistoli (Xerse) and Carlo Allemano (Ariodate)
© Clarissa Lapolla

The starting point of the libretto that Nicolò Minato drew from Herodotus’ Histories, are the Persian King Xerxes’ preparations for the invasion of Greece, but this element is limited to the prologue. For the rest, Cavalli’s dramma per musica is nothing but a fictitious account of the intrigues triggered by the king’s crush on his brother Arsamene’s fiancée, Romilda. Around this nucleus the other main characters revolve: Amastre, the woman already promised to the Persian king, and Adelanta, Romilda's sister, who is aiming at the throne. Il Xerse is not a comic opera but, as is usual in this genre, the comic element is not missing, here embodied by Elviro, Arsamene’s page. As for the protagonist, Xerses is a rather odd character, psychologically unstable, with outbursts of anger and melancholia, apart from the fact that he notoriously falls in love with a plane tree.

Carolina Lippo (Romilda)
© Clarissa Lapolla

For this production in Martina Franca – the first performance in modern times, based on the critical edition edited by Sara Elisa Stangalino and Hendrick Schultze – the director Leo Muscato decided, quite incongruously, to render the love affairs and struggle for power as a buffoonish farce. It’s also true that for modern taste the opera is lacking in melodies; the whole thing sounds like a gigantic recitative with many voices, interspersed with a few arias, the opening one being “Ombra mai fu”, of which Handel’s version is universally acclaimed.

Andrea Belli's set (a series of doors in oriental style) and the clown-like costumes by Giovanna Fiorentini increased the sense of cloying, as did the buffoonish acting imposed on the singers. To complete the eccentricities, the director asked the performers to play an abstruse gimmick: they would clap their hands like a movie slate to stop the action when they had to tell “asides” to the audience which, in the long run (dozens of them, actually), proved more than annoying.

Cast of Il Xerse
© Clarissa Lapolla

Conductor Federico Maria Sardelli, a specialist of the Baroque repertoire, led the Orchestra Barocca Modo Antiquo with very tight tempi. The task the singing cast faced was challenging: a word of praise must be said for the Xerse sung by Carlo Vistoli, who showed a beautiful timbre and a very clever, nuanced phrasing to depict the wavering feelings of the monarch.

As for the other singers, Gaia Petrone as Arsamene was convincing, too, for her musicality and smooth acting. The Romilda sung by Caterina Lippo was quite good, as were the sorrowful Amastre by Ekaterina Protsenko and the Adelanta by Dioklea Hoxha, while Carlo Allemano was Ariodate. Finally, Aco Bišcevic played a quite amusing Elviro.