Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

O19’s Phat Philly Phantasy

It is hard to imagine a more animated, engaging, and musically accomplished night at the Academy of Music than with Opera Philadelphia’s winning new staging of The Love for Three Oranges.

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

Billy Budd in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera’s Billy Budd confirms once again that Britten’s reworking of Melville’s novella is among the great masterpieces of the repertory. It boasted an exemplary cast in an exemplary production, and enlightened conducting.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

English Touring Opera <em>Xerxes</em>
11 Oct 2016

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English Touring Opera Xerxes, at the Hackney Empire

A review by Claire Seymour

Julia Riley as Xerxes

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Subsequent historians have been more inclined to raise a mocking eyebrow: ‘What good did it all do the tree?’ Aelian asks. And, such irony would probably have appealed to the Georgians’ love of satire, but in fact Handel’s Xerxes of 1738 didn’t go down too well in Hanoverian London, falling between two stools - the po-faced ethical extravagances of opera seria and the bawdy satire of native ballad opera - and disappearing from the stage after just five performances at the King’s Theatre in London.

And, while the opera must have appealed to the period’s penchant for Persia and the Levant, Nicolo Minato’s libretto, though ostensibly about the military campaigns of the eponymous Persian king Xerxes (c.500BC), is really a familiar operatic cats-cradle of convoluted, misplaced and unrequited desires. The wilful, petulant Xerxes is betrothed to the foreign princess Amastris, but has fallen in love with the commoner Romilda. The latter loves Xerxes’ long-suffering brother Arsamenes, who is also adored by Romilda’s sister, Atalanta. The seething passions and amorous competitiveness of the protagonists offer plenty of opportunities for wry comedy.

Moreover, one of the opera’s potentially most ludicrous moments has become the opera’s best-known and best-loved aria: Xerxes’ opening number, 'Ombra ma fu', in which the King addresses a plaintive song of admiration to the shade offered by a plane tree. The beauty of Handel’s ‘Largo’ (actually marked ‘Larghetto’ in the score) pushes aside any inclination to mock; and, in any case, it’s worth remembering that for dwellers on the dry plains of Asia, the sight of a large, shady tree would inspire enchantment, even religious awe.

This rather lengthy preamble leads us to the revival of James Conway’s ETO production of Xerxes, currently showing at the Hackney Empire before touring - with Cavalli’s La Calisto and Monteverdi’s Ulysses’ Homecoming - through the autumn ( ETO 2016 Autumn tour). Conway updates the action to 1940, replacing Xerxes’ campaigns in Greece with the Battle of Britain, and the King’s reverential address is directed not at any heaven-sent vegetation but at a Spitfire bomber-jet - as a flypast roars overhead, and newsreel footage and soundtrack accompaniment evoke the Blitz spirit. Designer Sarah Bacon presents us with a sparse set - a semi-circular recess serving as field hospital, Nissen hut and bedchamber - which Mark Howland lights with strong greens, blues and purples.

It’s certainly possible to update this opera to good effect. After all, Nick Hytner’s successful, much-admired and oft-reprised 1985 ENO production (and this production borrows Hytner’s translation) chose an Enlightenment setting, placing the action in an English pleasure garden, complete with the deck-chairs, outdoor concerts and tea-parties with which Handel’s contemporary Londoners were acquainted. But, there’s not anything inherently funny about the Battle of Britain; and, I suspect, from the meagre chuckles heard, that I was not alone in finding the bandage-clad, wheelchair-bound airman staggering into the field hospital to be entertained and distracted from their suffering and misery by the crooning of volunteer nurse Romilda to be somewhat distasteful.

Conway occasionally over-compensates with comic excess, as when Romilda and Atalanta engage in infantile fisticuffs which end with a bouquet being bashed into oblivion; or when the rise of an orange wind-socket serves as an indicator of erotic heightening. More problematic than the odd exaggerated effort to raise a laugh, though, is the fact that the cast’s diction is on the whole quite poor and no surtitles are provided (though there are screens which announce occasional changes of location or mood, and offer the audience instruction or advice: ‘Interval: off you go.’)

Strong vocal performances from the cast do provide compensation and round out the character-stereotypes. This presents quite a challenge for Julia Riley, in the title role, for her character is totally obsessed with a single-minded passion. But, Riley has both the stamina to convey the King’s blind sense of omnipotence and the vocal colour to convey varying emotions. The aria in which Xerxes recognises that Romilda’s love for Arsamenes is unbreakable revealed melancholy depths hitherto concealed and unsuspected. And, Xerxes’ closing outburst of frustration and fury at finding Romilda already wed was fiery enough to equal the raging ferocity of an enemy air-raid.

Laura Mitchell displayed strong vocal and stage presence as the proud, high-spirited Romilda and coped well with the coloratura demands, using her virtuosity, power and clean tone to demonstrate flashing feistiness when warning Galina Averina’s Atalanta to keep her hands off her man. Carolyn Robbin tackles Amastris’s vengeful Act I aria with aplomb, accompanied by vibrant playing from the ETO’s baroque orchestra, The Old Street Band.

Clint van der Linde’s Arsamenes was rather hooty to begin with, and the intonation was wayward at times, but the countertenor did settle and his aria of despair, when Arsamenes believes that Romilda has final capitulated under the insistence and authority of Xerxes’ relentless demands, was movingly phrased and delivered. As Arsamenes’ mackintosh-attired servant, Elviro, Peter Brathwaite injected a welcome dose of buffo; he has an appealing baritone and, rare among the cast, Brathwaite’s diction was excellent. Andrew Slater put in a fine performance as Romilda’s father Ariodate, here an RAF scientist.

Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny set a breezy pace in the overture and did not let the tempo relax. The performance lasted under three hours - the choruses are excised - and there was brisk movement from aria to aria, with Kenny only occasionally pausing to allow the audience to show their appreciation. In fact, at times it felt rather too hasty; and, it couldn’t have assisted the clarity of the singer’s text-delivery. But, Kenny did not waste any opportunities for pointed orchestral commentary and observation, adding an emphatic edge to many the cadence of many an aria-playout to press home the humour or sarcasm, drawing forth chromatic clarifications - as when the love-struck Xerxes is spurned by Romilda - and encouraging his players to deploy a wide dynamic range to heighten the emotional contrasts and impulsiveness.

This production offers many musical rewards but, in the absence of surtitles, audiences might want to do some homework before the show.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Xerxes

Xerxes - Julia Riley, Arsamenes - Clint van der Linder, Elviro - Peter Brathwaite, Amastris - Carolyn Dobbin, Ariodate - Andrew Slater, Romilda - Laura Mitchell, Atalanta - Galina Averina; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kenny, Designer - Sarah Bacon, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, Movement Adviser - Bernadette Iglich, Sound Designer - James Evans, Video Designers - Finn Ross/Ian William Galloway.

English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 8th October 2016.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):