Xerxes - English Touring Opera - Britten Theatre, 8 October 2011
Xerxes (aka Serse) is not one of Handel's easiest operas to stage - or to love. The insufferably pompous hero is hard to warm to, and his improbable volte-face at the neatly happy ending sets new standards for implausibility in baroque opera.
English Touring Opera's solution is to capitalise on the comic elements. A Battle of Britain airbase stands in for ancient Persia. King Xerxes is a plucky pilot who conveniently forgets he's already been promised to a foreign princess when he falls for his brother Arsamene's girlfriend, a nurse. He sings his opening aria Ombra mai fu beneath a plane of the Spitfire variety, and Nicholas Hytner's English translation ensures a dashed jolly good time is had by all.
James Conway's production cuts a good half an hour from the full version to no great detriment. A few more minutes must be shaved by Jonathan Peter Kenny's lively pacing. It's still a three hour show, but it seems to zip along. As someone who has been known to slip out of the Barbican's interminable Handelthons at half time in fear of fossilisation, it made a pleasant change to find myself eager to return after the interval.
The outstanding cast slip into character as if they've been brought up with Biggles - and who knows, perhaps they have. Clint Van Der Linde's lavatory-scrubbing Arsamene is a distinctly beta-male foil to Julia Riley's commanding Xerxes, all pipe and Brylcreem. Laura Mitchell and Paula Sides are the sisters Romilda and Atalanta who battle over the 'spare' - their hairbrush-armed, pyjama-clad catfight is wittily choreographed as well as beautifully sung. As the spurned princess Amastre, Rachael Lloyd's upper lip remains stiff despite the unflattering overalls she must don to win back Xerxes. To have the unlikely reconciliations of the finale precipitated by an offstage bomb strike is a bit of a masterstroke, even if the poppies that miraculously appear strike a false note.
A spiffing treat.
production photos (above) - Richard Hubert Smith
curtain call photos (below) - intermezzo.typepad.com