Xerxes, Britten Theatre, London The Fairy Queen, Britten Theatre, London Takács Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

English Touring Opera's dazzling romance, set during the Second World War, is sexy and stylish

Two hundred and eighty-four years after Handel swore the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, English Touring Opera has rubber-stamped the composer's British citizenship with James Conway's production of Xerxes.

Instead of a plane tree, we have a Spitfire. Instead of the Hellespont, the Channel. Conway is not the first director to draw on the Keep Calm and Carry On spirit of the Second World War. Last March, Harry Fehr set his Battle of Britain Orlando in the Now Panic and Freak Out wards of a military hospital. Call it trending if you like, an extension of the vogue for wartime propaganda on tea towels and mugs. But between the original Ministry of Information poster and its modern-day parody is the key to Handel's operas: the conflict between order and disorder, duty and caprice, state and self.

The poster theme continues in Sarah Bacon's designs, where searchlights strafe the gauze drop-cloth. Video projections transform the corrugated curve of a Nissen hut into an aircraft instrument panel as Arsamenes (Clint van der Linde), stripped of his rank and sent to clean the latrines, imagines a suicide mission in "Amor tiranno". Inflamed by lust, his brother Xerxes (Julia Riley) delivers "Crude furie" to the soundtrack of an enemy bombing raid. Romilda (Laura Mitchell) is a nurse, Ariodates (Andrew Slater) a Barnes Wallis-esque boffin. Nicholas Merryweather's Elviro disguises himself as a spiv, his overcoat lined with packets of blackmarket stockings, while Rachael Lloyd's Amastris assumes the uniform of a Polish pilot.

War is seldom so present in Xerxes. Here, the restoration of order is shaded with sorrow as the closing chorus is sung to a case of scarlet poppies. It's the only awkward note. Elsewhere, Conway responds eagerly to Handel's dazzling score, with a Freudian windsock to illustrate Xerxes' libido and a brilliantly choreographed bedtime cat-fight between Romilda and her ditsy sister, Atalanta (Paula Sides). With minimal tweaks, Nicholas Hytner's 1985 translation sounds peppy, smart and fresh, as does ETO's period ensemble, the Old Street Band. Vocally, the performances are highly expressive and stylish, with outstanding work from Riley, Sides and Mitchell and scintillating cadenzas, all seemingly from the same pen. Jonathan Peter Kenny's calligraphic conducting shows his background as a Handelian singer – all curlicues and sprezzatura, a frothy delight.

First staged by The Armonico Consort, Thomas Guthrie's ETO production of The Fairy Queen re-imagines Purcell's semi-opera as the waking dream of Richard Dadd, the Victorian artist who was hospitalised after stabbing his father, believing him to be the devil. Dadd's fairy paintings are referenced in the lunar disc that hangs over Roger Butlin's asylum ward set, and in the duet between Coridon and Mopsa, both inmates, with the latter styled after Crazy Jane. An air of mirthless lust hangs over the stage. Literally so in the case of the aerialists, whose movements are too strenuous to be erotic. The band plays well but the score is a mess of cuts and silences, and the great Chaconne is squandered on the curtain call. If I'd had a rotten tomato, I would have thrown it.

Played on consecutive evenings, with odd numbers on the first night and even numbers on the second, the Takács Quartet's survey of Bartók's string quartets was both an event in its own right and an adjunct to the Philharmonia's series, Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók. The quartets run through Bartók's music like veins, from the post-Romantic abstractions of the first to the cats-cradle chromaticism of the sixth. The trajectory was near-identical in both concerts. Intonation problems muddled Nos 1 and 2, tone and tuning coalesced in Nos 3 and 4, while the intensity of connection was almost incendiary in Nos 5 and 6. Mesto (sad) is the performance direction for each movement of the last quartet, written in Hungary but premiered in America, where Bartók died four months after the Second World War ended. Mesto indeed.

'Xerxes' / 'The Fairy Queen': West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (0207-833 2555), Wed and Thu, then touring

Next Week:

Anna Picard sees Castor and Pollux resolve their mutual love for Telaira in Barrie Kosky's new ENO production

Classical Choice

Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra sweep into London with a cycle of Beethoven symphonies and a series of UK premieres. Barbican Hall (from Tue). Violinist Nikolaj Znaider is guest conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Brahms's Symphony No 4, plus Schumann and Wagner, at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (Wed and Thu).

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral