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
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable