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Robert Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2012

It is very difficult to obtain a recording of a Handel opera that is not updated in some way. This classic excellently sung production, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, manages to break this mould and portray the work in a meaningful natural context and staging. © 2012 MusicWeb International

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, August 2012

In this production, in wonderfully inventive and colourful sets by David Fielding, the costumes are sensible without being exact to a period, particularly in respect of Romilda and Atalanta, the two women in the lives of the two brothers.

This 1988 performance features some of the outstanding English-speaking singers around at that time. All are good in their roles and if there are a few moments of vocal imperfection they are more than compensated for in outstanding acting and decorated singing. The mezzo-sopranos Ann Murray and Jean Rigby are quite magnificent in their sung and acted portrayal. If the sopranos Valerie Masterson and Lesley Garrett don’t quite match them it is by a small margin, with the latter acting the role with every facial expression imaginable, and then some, whilst singing with a clear lyric quality. The dark tones of Rodney Macann are sonorous whilst Christopher Booth-Jones does not over-act the role of Elviro, as can so easily be the case. The counter-tenor Christopher Robson does his best without my yearning for the more creamy tones found among some European singers of the genre.

Having lauded the virtues of the direction, sets, costumes and singing, I have to find some greater superlatives for the contribution of Sir Charles Mackerras’s conducting. With a trimmed-down band he manages a near Baroque rendering of his own erudite edition of Handel’s even longer score. It is too rare to find practice and scholarship so closely entwined… © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Judith Malafronte
Opera News, August 2012

A reissue from Arthaus of Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes for English National Opera affords a fresh assessment of this endearing and enduring production. Features of the award-winning 1985 show—the garden furniture, the statuary, the hedge-clipping—have been seen here and there in other Handel operas, but Hytner’s breezy style and gentle humor were startling and refreshing at the time and still present a high standard for comparison.

The director blends Enlightenment aesthetics with then-fashionable “oriental” flavors to offer a witty look at posh eighteenth-century society.

As Hytner turns a mirror on Handel’s operagoing public, the composer’s 1738 work reflects his desperation to maintain an audience for Italian opera by writing music in a lighter, more popular style. Short dance-tunes and strophic airs relieve the tedium of lengthy da capo arias, while informal duets pepper the score.

Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray heads the cast in a stunning performance in which vocal perfection—her brilliant top, rich and elegant sound, superb breath control—serves a characterization so exuberant and poised that we overlook Xerxes’s obnoxious narcissism. Capturing the musical and vocal essence of each moment, Murray clothes Xerxes in a politician’s dangerous amiability, and her performance is stupendous in every way.

Countertenor Christopher Robson’s Arsamenes is no less gripping, and he portrays Xerxes’s younger brother with nobility and sympathy. As a vocal actor, Robson motivates da capo repeats with breathtaking imagination and proficiency, especially the internal, thoughtful aria “When grief and pain assail me” and the bitter “Once we would kiss and play.”

The staging has weathered well, still looking fresh and inventive and superior to many more recent shtick-laden Baroque productions. David Fielding’s sets and the uncredited costume designs are elegant and attractive. © 2012 Opera News Read complete review

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2012

This is a reissue of a famous 1988 production released at least twice before…I can see why Arthaus decided to reissue it. For lovers of Baroque opera, both Nicholas Hytner’s staging and the performance are fairly traditional. Aside from using a countertenor (Robson) for Arsamenes, it doesn’t employ many facets of historically informed practice. Murray, Masterson, Rigby, and Macann all have full voices…At the time, Mackerras was considered the sina qua non of British conductors for virtually everything but especially for Mozart, which was one of his specialties. He used a reduced orchestra but didn’t buy into the concept of non-vibrato strings (good for him!).

…we hear, coming from the back of the stage, the most marvelous soprano voice, a voice of not only rare beauty and technical finish, but also one of those unusual British sopranos with metal or ping in the upper range. This is Valerie Masterson as Romilda and, vocally, this is her opera. Your jaw fairly drops to hear her spin out the most effortless legato you are liable to hear in your lifetime, and it is difficult to hear where she takes a breath.

One of the more interesting aspects of the performance is the inclusion of Lesley Garrett…she sounds better…and her diction is among the clearest. Jean Rigby, as Amastris…has one of the strongest voices in the cast…with a good cut up top and the most solid coloratura technique of any of the principals.

…Arthaus did a fine job of making [this DVD] sound about as good as one could hope for. If you enjoy this opera, you’ll surely enjoy this presentation since it is relatively lively and well sung and acted. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Henson Keys
Parterre Box, April 2012

This production features generally fine singing, an interesting and clever production, and superb stage direction by Hytner that allows all the varied emotional and delightful aspects of this unusual opera seria to come to vivid life.

…Handel interspersed numerous buffo moments into the opera seria form, offending his original audience. The result is a charming mix of comedy and poignancy with moving moments shifting seamlessly to delightfully romantic comic moments.

Hytner’s steady direction uses these shifting moments to change mood and emotion without ever seeming to jar. It is a rich and satisfying mixture. Even the endlessly ornamented vowels…are executed with meaning and emotional clarity. The coloratura advances the meaning.

Xerxes is a strange comic/tragic/romantic hybrid featuring mismatched lovers, passionate romantic intrigue, and a few political/military moments thrown in for good measure. It is to Hytner’s credit that this production is entirely clear, making the convoluted plot easy to follow.

Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray completely inhabits the title role, and sings with authority and grace throughout. From her first moment singing the sumptuous “Ombra mai fu”…she takes command of the stage and never lets go. She is remarkably versatile in the role, able to navigate the changing emotion of Xerxes with ease and power. The role contains elegance, wistfulness, passion, fury, jealousy, and romance, and Ms. Murray finds them all. Every moment is fearlessly and beautifully sung.

Masterson (and indeed the entire cast) has strong coloratura skills and splendid acting moments with fine comic timing. Jean Rigby gives a strong performance as Xerxes’ rejected lover Amastris, equal parts poignant and furious.

Even with a few less-than-stellar performances, this is a musically and dramatically splendid production, amusing yet elegant. Handel’s glorious music is never sublimated to the production, and even this 186 minutes of music moves nimbly and never bores. Sir Charles Mackerras leads a sparkling orchestral performance from the Orchestra of the English National Opera, and the neutrally-dressed chorus sings in superb co-ordination. © 2012 Parterre Box Read complete review

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