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

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Bohuslav Martinů – What Men Live By

World premiere recording from Supraphon of Bohuslav Martinů What Men Live By (H336,1952-3) with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from a live performances in 2014, with Martinů's Symphony no 1 (H289, 1942) recorded in 2016. Bělohlávek did much to increase Martinů's profile, so this recording adds to the legacy, and reveals an extremely fine work.

Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with Tabea Zimmermann, plus Stéphane Degout in Les Nuits d’été from Hamonia Mundi. This Harold en Italie, op. 16, H 68 (1834) captures the essence of Romantic yearning, expressed in Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage where the hero rejects convention to seek his destiny in uncharted territory.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

Le Bal des Animaux : Works by Chabrier, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie et al.

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthaüser’s latest song recital is all about the animal kingdom. As in previous recordings of songs by Wolf, Debussy and Poulenc, pianist Eugene Asti is her accompanist in Le Bal des Animaux, a delightful collection of French songs about creatures of all sizes, from flea to elephant and from crayfish to dolphin.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Wolfgang Rihm: Requiem-Strophen

The world premiere recording of Wolfgang Rihm's Requiem-Strophen (2015/2016) with Mariss Jansons conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Mojca Erdmann, Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, from BR Klassik NEOS.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

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):