Xerxes, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews
Xerxes, English National Opera
Xerxes, English National Opera
This vintage Handel is pretty, witty and more youthful than ever
Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 Magic Flute may have trilled its last at English National Opera, but judging by the wit, the joy and the energy on display last night it would be absolutely criminal to put the director’s even more elderly Xerxes out to pasture – the show that brought Handel back into fashion when it premiered in 1985.
I was a little too busy being born to attend the production’s first outing, so came late to the party at its most recent outing in 2005. Revival director Michael Walling has refined his ideas since then, and there’s a lot less fuss and faff among designer David Fielding’s hyper-stylized rendering of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Never has going south of the river been more exotic or more chic.
Hytner’s sly collisions of worlds makes for a riotous commentary on the formal conventions of Handel’s day
Stripped of some of its excess movement, Hytner’s elegant concept speaks clearly and wittily. Here is a Handel opera seria refracted through the anarchic world of the 18th-century pleasure garden. Just as darkness and desire make for a sensuous democracy, so Hytner’s sly collisions of worlds and tones makes for a riotous commentary on the formal conventions and expectations of Handel’s day.
A colourful cast of principals burst into an orderly monochrome world in which white-faced servants wait silently and grey-clad ladies and gentleman take cautious pleasure in tea and deckchairs. It’s a drama that mirrors the quiet anarchy of Handel’s own score, which cheerfully thwarts musical conventions, and weaves drama together in a strikingly fluid and contemporary arc.
Set originally in ancient Persia, the plot is the usual convulsions of thwarted love, tyrannical power and righteous vengeance, with just a dash of cross-dressing. Crucially however humour plays as big a role as passion, and this seam of wit is beautifully tapped in Nicholas Hytner’s own libretto. After some startlingly poor recent efforts it’s good to be reminded just what a translation can do – its delicate wordplay and fidelity to spirit rather than substance making an unanswerable case for ENO’s embattled opera-in-English policy.
At the centre of this revival is Alice Coote’s Xerxes (pictured right), a miracle of petulant, lusty privilege and swagger. Coote’s comic timing is a delight, playing off the cool disdain of Sarah Tynan’s Romilda and earnest brother Arsamenes (Andrew Watts) with gleeful enjoyment. Add to this Coote’s customary coloratura brilliance (nowhere better displayed than in “Crude furie”) and a nifty trick with some collapsing statuary, and you have a Xerxes that’s about as good as it gets.
Tynan, who sang the role of Atalanta back in 2005, now takes on Romilda – an exchange that trades comic breadth of character for intensity. But even straitjacketed in the heroine’s rather thankless tragedy, Tynan finds the spark of personality that transforms a classic sisterly dispute into a Wildean comedy of manners, aided by Rhian Lois’s perfectly pitched Atalanta (pictured below with Andrew Watts as Arsamenes). Holding her own against Tynan’s superb singing, Lois once again proves her gift for comedy, as believable as she is charming.
Watts’ isn’t the loveliest of countertenor voices, lacking the polish of Lawrence Zazzo or Iestyn Davies, and gets a little wild at the top. It’s certainly powerful enough for the Coliseum however, and its rather ragged athleticism makes for an unusually characterful Arsamenes – usually the bland precursor to Mozart’s tenors. Despite looking like a German pop star circa 1990, Neal Davies brings a gravitas to commander Ariodates, and mezzo Catherine Young makes an impression as a Connolly-in-the-making, her Amastris both touching and impressively sung.
Pretty, witty and thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, this Xerxes is still a masterclass in bringing baroque up to date. It should be required viewing for all young opera directors, and compulsory for anyone who thinks they don’t like Handel opera. Here’s to another 30 years.
- Xerxes is at English National Opera until 3 October, 2014
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