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Alice Coote as Xerxes and Sarah Tynan as Romilda [Photo ENO / Mike Hoban]
17 Sep 2014

Xerxes, ENO

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.

Xerxes, ENO

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Alice Coote as Xerxes and Sarah Tynan as Romilda

Photos © ENO / Mike Hoban


Receiving its 6th revival on 15 September 2014, revival director Michael Walling, the production is looking as fresh as ever with David Fielding’s designs still bright and crisp. ENO fielded a strong cast mixing experienced singers and newcomers. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sang the title role; an experienced Handelian this was her role debut. Having sung Atalanta in the last revival of the production (in 2002) Sarah Tynan moved onto sing Romilda, the more serious dramatic of the two soprano roles. The soubrette role of Atalanta was sung by Harewood Young Artist Rhian Lois, whilst another Harewood Young Artist, Catherine Young sang Amastris. Counter-tenor Andrew Watts sang Arsamenes, with Neal Davies as Ariodates and Adrian Powter as Elviro. Michael Hofstetter conducted.

Hofstetter is the Principal Conductor of the Grossess Orchester Graz and made his ENO debut with La Traviata. But his background is also in early music and he launched the overture at quite a considerable speed. The ENO Orchestra responded brilliantly but I did rather worry about the health of the performance. In fact, I need not have worried and Hofstetter proved a responsive conductor, keeping the show moving but never rushing the singers off their feet.

Whilst the production is in good health, I did rather worry that the general tone had become a little more flippant and satirical than formerly. I was assured by others present that this was not so; Nicholas Hytner was in the audience and reputedly was happy with the revival. It is, after all, 29 years since I saw the opening run with Ann Murray and Valerie Masterson and not only does memory play tricks but my own conception of Handelian opera seria has changed.

ENO-Xerxes--Lois-and-Watts.gifRhian Lois as Atalanta and Andrew Watts as Arsamenes

Not that Xerxes is in any way typical of Handel’s opera. Handel always seems to have had a fondness for using librettos taken from 17th century Venetian operas, but in Xerxes he seems to have kept rather closer to the original. The opera has far more short arias and far fewer extended da capo arias than is general in Handel. And, whilst the piece is not strictly a comedy, it does mix the serious with the satirical in a way which is sometimes downright comic. But getting the tone right is essential. When Act 2 comes, and we have all five principals (Xerxes, Romilda, Arsamenes, Atalanta and Amastris) having problems in love and addressing us in serious tones, it is essential that we believe in them as people. They might get up to comic business, but their emotions are very real. By and large Walling got this right.

Alice Coote’s Xerxes was superbly sung, covering the full range from the short lyric arias through the virtuoso bluff and bluster to the intense pain of the extended da capo arias. Coote has a very personal way with Handel and her performance was a very individual one. Musically she took her time over some things, but showed herself equally capable of bravura passagework. Similarly, in terms of character, she projected Xerxes’ changeability quite brilliantly. Her conception of Xerxes might be rather more flippant than some, but she certainly brought out the idea that living with him was very much living on the edge. You never knew what might happen.

Equally captivating and profoundly poised was Sarah Tynan as Romilda. She started out giving the character a lighter, slightly satirical edge as if she had not left Atalanta behind, but Tynan’s Romilda develop a superb depth. Tynan’s Handel singing is still crystalline and clear, with a lovely sense of style. In fact, the Romilda she reminded me of most was the original one in this production, Valerie Masterson. Tynan didn’t just sing superbly, but brought a real depth to the bleaker moments when Romilda says that if she can’t be with Arsamenes then she will die. Tynan made us believe it, whilst sounding superbly beautiful.

ENO-Xerxes--Powter-and-Youn.gifAdrian Powter as Elviro and Catherine Young as Amastris

Rhian Lois, singing her first Handel opera role, was a great delight as Atalanta. Her coloratura was pin sharp and she was wonderfully sparky (perhaps too much so at first) but she also brought out the more serious moments when the mask slipped. And she developed a very vital relationship with Sarah Tynan’s Romilda. Perhaps Lois took a little time to work up a full head of steam, but that is understandable.

Also singing her first role in Handel opera, Catherine Young made a strikingly tall Amastris. She has a lovely soft-grained voice which you sense will become a great asset in a number of trouser roles; a Xerxes in the making. But Amastris was written for a robust contralto voice and there were moments when, though singing musically and intelligently, Young lacked the necessary heft.

Arsamenes is one of the characters in the opera who gets virtually no comic moments. Andrew Watts was suitably intense and, in the more lyrical arias with great beauty and a lovely sense of Handelian line. But in the more stressful arias, he had a tendency to push his voice too much so that a hardness crept in and there were rather too many acuti which would have been better missed out. This was a shame, because this was a performance of great strength and intensity.

Adrian Powter made a delightful Elviro with good comic timing. He gamely appeared in a dress for act two (definitely not on the original production) and with his beard and long hair, looked startlingly like Conchita Wurst. Neal Davies made what he could of Ariodates giving him a bluff idiocy which was entirely apt and singing the more bravura moments finely.

Hofstetter and the orchestra were on fine form throughout the opera, providing a crisp and nicely historically informed accompaniment.

This was an admirably strong revival, showcasing some extremely fine Handel singing and a production in robust health. Here’s to another 30 years.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Xerxes: Alice Coote; Romilda: Sarah Tynan; Atalanta: Rhian Lois; Arsamenes: Andrew Watts; Amastris: Catherine Young; Ariodates: Neal Davies; Elviro: Adrian Powter. Director: Nicholas Hytner; Revival Director: Michael Welling. Conductor: Michael Hofstetter. English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 15 September 2014.

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