It’s Good to Be the King! A Star Is Born in Xerxes

Back in 1966, New York City Opera patrons who attended the opening night of a previously obscure Handel opera, Julius Caesar , witnessed the emergence of a major new prima donna in the Cleopatra of the evening, Beverly Sills. Thirty-one years later, the same company and another Handel opera have done it again. In the demanding title role in Xerxes , Lorraine Hunt is scoring one of those triumphs that opera buffs will be talking about for years as the occasion when a star of the first rank was born.

Xerxes was one of Handel’s last operas-it had its premiere in 1738-and it shows him well beyond the gaudy showmanship of his earlier works for the stage; he assays the subject of misplaced lovesickness with the wry worldliness of the Enlightenment. Appropriately, the director, Stephen Wadsworth, has abandoned the opera’s setting of ancient Persia for 1730′s England. Romilda, the object of rival pursuit by the king Xerxes (whom she detests) and his brother Arsamene (whom she adores), now lives behind the brick garden wall of a not-too-grand Georgian manor house, and the tree to which the king sings the opera’s famous opening aria-the much Muzaked “Handel’s Largo”-is a nicely spreading sycamore. Mr. Wadsworth, who is a veteran of the Santa Fe Opera, where this production originated, has adapted the Italian into an English that wears its fondness for singable rhymes with a larkiness that pervades the entire production.

This is one of those one-joke operas-will Xerxes succeed through sheer droit du roi in bullying his way into Romilda’s heart?-that can get awfully attenuated by the time the third act rolls around. (One of the evening’s bigger laughs came when Romilda’s father, Ariodate, exclaimed toward the end of the third act-apropos the apparent settling of his daughter’s hand and the audience’s waning patience-”Thank God, it’s over.”) Happily, Handel wrote one of his most felicitous, least formulaic scores. The arias arise naturally out of situations, without the usual orchestral announcements; they run long or short, depending on dramatic exigency; they are interrupted by recitatives-often rudely. Unaccompanied by the bluster of brass, they come and go with the spontaneity of thought and speech. Invariably, they are flattering to the voice and ravishing to the ear.

Under the zestful, sensitive conducting of George Manahan, this was the most musically distinguished performance I have heard at City Opera in years. Apart from a few minor lapses in intonation on opening night (in Susannah Waters’ deliciously hapless Atalanta and James Bobick’s agreeably buffoonish Elviro), the level of vocal execution was extraordinarily high. Fresh from his triumphant Lincoln Center recital debut, the amazing countertenor David Daniels made show-stoppers of the few big set pieces allotted to Arasmene with that eerie siren-call sound of his, at once irresistible and shocking. Amy Burton’s wonderfully spirited Romilda gained in vocal and psychological mettle as the evening progressed. Jennifer Lang sang the trouser role of the king’s forsaken lover, Amastre, with style and dignity. Jan Opalach’s Ariodate was one of those endearingly befuddled fathers that Jane Austen so loved.

But the greatest triumph was Lorraine Hunt’s. From the king’s opening entrance as a Gainsborough-esque dandy borne aloft in a sedan chair by his lackeys, she deftly, without the slightest forcing, implied all the complexities of an outwardly ridiculous character whose growth to moral self-awareness is the opera’s real story. In a role originally written for a high male voice, Ms. Hunt’s mezzo-soprano has all the qualities required for success in the Baroque repertoire: pinpoint intonation, steadiness and evenness of tone, articulateness in rapid passages. More important, she has something else.

Nobility is not a word to be used lightly in these times, but it is unmistakable in every aspect of Ms. Hunt’s dramatic and vocal presence. A slim, handsome blonde woman who looks totally at ease in a man’s frock coat and britches, she has a natural pathos in her warmly focused timbre, which, in the higher register, opens up to leave a glow in the air. Singers well schooled in Early Music tend to be better behaved vocally than singers weaned on later, more realistic fare, but there is nothing of the Good Girl about Ms. Hunt. Her voice can throb or blaze with longing or fury-for which there is ample opportunity in Xerxes -without ever becoming shrill or melodramatic. As is true of the older singer she most recalls-Frederica von Stade-there is a kind of moral fiber in her artistry, an innate thoughtfulness.

Lorraine Hunt’s ascendancy has come as no surprise to those of us who, for some time now, have marked her billing as reason to make the trek on a rainy night to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she has shone in William Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ landmark productions of Gustave Charpentier’s Médée and Jean Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie , or to drop in on one of the New York Festival of Song’s programs of revelatory esoterica in which she has long been a stalwart. She has been a distinguished Handelian on disk: the leading lady on Nicholas McGegan’s superb recordings of the oratorios Theodora and Susanna for Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907060/62 and 907030/32) and soloist in a magnificently sung assortment of Handel arias that I especially cherish as the most eloquent account of “A Man of Sorrow and Acquainted With Grief” I know.

Significantly, she is homegrown. This might seem like not much of a distinction at a time when Americans have blossomed in so many categories of the female voice, from Renee Fleming and Deborah Voight to Dawn Upshaw and Susan Graham. But Ms. Hunt’s gifts were developed almost entirely on native ground, achieving fruition without her having paid the usual obeisance to European audiences, conductors and recording executives. Moreover, she may be the first operatic superstar to emerge not by way of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner or Puccini but out of the increasingly porous ghetto of Early Music.

Lorraine Hunt’s potency in the Baroque repertoire does not preclude her tackling more modern fare, but I hope that she does not too soon forsake the State Theater at Lincoln Center for more glamorous stages. Her combination of dramatic intensity, impeccable musicianship and a natural radiance that seems to me in the best sense American , has given the newly re-energized City Opera a second world-class prima donna-the other is Lauren Flanigan-to call its own.