tue 23/07/2024

Xerxes, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music | reviews, news & interviews

Xerxes, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Xerxes, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Persian princes become British bombers in this Handel production

Xerxes (Julia Riley) surveys his magnificent machineRichard Hubert Smith

“Morning at the airfield: King Xerxes admires the new Spitfire, which he hopes will transform his continental campaign.” If the title – emphatically Xerxes rather than Serse – hadn’t already given the game away, the synopsis for English Touring Opera’s newest Handel production makes it quite clear that we’re not in Kansas (or Italy, or Persia for that matter) any more.

The scene is the Battle of Britain and ruler Xerxes is doing his best impersonation of one of those dashing young men in his flying machine. The minute he slips off his goggles and delivers “Ombra mai fu” – reconceived as an ode to his beloved aeroplane – you just know it’s going to be a good evening.

Aided by the cogent wit of Nicholas Hytner’s classic English translation, director James Conway strips away orientalist issues and pantaloons alike, and plunges us instead into a wartime montage of silhouetted fighter planes, neatly dressed nurses and mackintoshed black-marketeers. Handel’s already rather free-form take on opera seria (“taking the serious out of seria” as Hytner inevitably has it), here blossoms in the swift pacing that makes hard-fought dogfights out of four-square recitatives.

One of the evening's finest set pieces took the form of a pyjama-clad catfight between the two romantic rivals

The plot is tortuous, even by Handel’s standards, and its inherent silliness finds expression in a sort of camp menace that owes a debt to Dr Strangelove. At the root of this is Xerxes himself – an imposing figure indeed in Julia Riley’s hands, standing tall above Clint van der Linde’s Arsamenes and sporting enough Brylcreem to glaze the entire male cast of The Godfather. Comfortably masculine in the role, and displaying – against strong competition – the most assured vocal delivery of the evening, the danger here was in her making a wronged hero out of this peevish ruler.

Giving the weight of sincerity to Xerxes’s rather sudden passion for the beautiful Romilda (despite the best attempts of a Carry On RAF-style phallic windsock), Riley’s delivery matched for dynamism every visual explosion during “Crude furie”, and brought brutality as well as anguish to her climactic encounter with her reluctant beloved. Her full, dramatic tones contrasted well with Van der Linde’s rather more hollow countertenor – flexible and agile enough if occasionally pushed a little hard for climactic effect.

Romilda’s tightly wound fidelity can make her hard to warm to, but Laura Mitchell’s (pictured right with Van der Linde's Arsmenes) musicality and range of expression carried her slightly implausible adoration for Arsamenes, while Conway’s direction gave Mitchell’s Romilda (together with Paula Sides’s Atalanta) one of the finest set pieces in the form of a pyjama-clad catfight between the two rivals.

English Touring Opera has built its success on the talent of young British singers, and this production – housed in a sympathetically sized theatre – was a true celebration of this, a real ensemble effort with not a weak performance among the lot. We saw real dramatic range from Sides’s Atalanta, out of whose coquettish bitchery grew the simple sadness of her closing. Rachel Lloyd gamely emoted as rejected princess Amastris, while Nicholas Merryweather’s comedy henchman Elviro (pictured left) and his silk stockings was all personality and vocal pizzazz.

Driving proceedings from the pit was Jonathan Peter Kenny. Grinning and bopping along, his tempi were always on the poised side of sprightly, and just occasionally it would have been nice to hear a bit more urgency. The Old Street Band didn’t lack for edge in their attack, but at Kenny’s measured pace just a little more languor from the upper strings would have gilded the slower arias, matching the work of the singers.

The association between ETO and Handel, cemented in 2009’s Handelfest, is a fruitful one. We’ve had a fair bit of traditional interpretation from the company over the years, but it’s wonderful to see so cheeky and altogether more relaxed a production from them. Xerxes, whether for its more modern structural sensibility or simply its music, has attracted some classic productions which loom over any newcomers. Conway and ETO have taken Hytner’s legacy and made it their own. Handel will forever be classical music’s adopted Englishman, and it seems only fitting that he should have so thoroughly British a celebration here.

The minute Xerxes slips off his goggles and delivers 'Ombra mai fu' as an ode to his beloved aeroplane, you just know it’s going to be a good evening

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