Xerxes/The Fairy Queen, English Touring Opera, Britten Theatre (5/5, 1/5)

The Handel aria which everyone knows – ‘Ombra mai fu’ – is the Persian King Xerxes’s paean of praise to a generously-spreading plane tree. Trust director James Conway to come up with a different take. He has the aria sung by a Forties monarch to a plane: a Spitfire, to be precise, because this Xerxes is sending his fighters to avert a modern invasion.

The front-drop is criss-crossed with searchlights, and the roar of aero-engines segues into a period-instrument overture, yet neither these, nor any of the other bold anachronisms in this show – Nissen huts, newsreel bombing footage - mar the beauty and power of Handel’s music. Conway has sought inspiration in ‘The Dam Busters’, and found it in abundance. Romilda, whom the king and his brother Arsamenes quarrel over, is a voluntary nurse, while Arsamenes is a flying ace; with sudden entrances from the skies, and dormitory cat-fights among the women, the original plot’s melange of high drama and slapstick comedy survives astonishingly intact.



It’s performed by seven accomplished singer-actors, brilliantly supported by the newly-created Old Street Band under the direction of Jonathan Peter Kenny. No praise can be too high for mezzo Julia Riley in the title role, or for the bewitching Laura Mitchell as Romilda; major plaudits for soprano Rachel Lloyd and counter-tenor Clint van der Linde, whose luxuriously powerful sound has no equal. Covent Garden would count itself lucky to host a Baroque show of this calibre.



The same could emphatically not be said of ETO’s new take on Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen’. This exquisite ‘semi-opera’ was a collection of masques designed to accompany Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and its oddness often induces directors to take liberties – as witness Jonathan Kent’s triumphantly off-the-wall Glyndebourne production.



Director Thomas Guthrie has chosen to set it in Richard Dadd’s lunatic asylum. In properly adult hands, this conceit might just have worked, but Guthrie’s posture is that of an idiot child reaching up to deface a masterpiece. For him, the inmates of the asylum are figures of fun: what a capital joke to choreograph their derangements! Every bar of the music is subverted and trashed in this callow ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ treatment. Tragic, given the love which the Old Street Band lavishes on it.



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