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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.

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