MUSIC / The English in love: Meredith Oakes reviews English National Opera's dazzling revival of Handel's Xerxes

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The Independent Culture
The English National Opera's brilliant Xerxes is back. Watching this Nicholas Hytner production from 1985, it's hard to believe Handel could ever be dull. Upon bright green lawns, ceremonially roped off in red, or graced with symmetrical tea tables or deckchairs, royal persons confide their love lives in voluptuous arias and strophic songs. The plot makes a single hilariously perfunctory, five-minute nod towards historical truth when Xerxes builds a mighty bridge as a crossing to Europe and it straight away collapses in a storm. The characters can hardly be bothered to look; they're too busy courting.

Xerxes is shorter than most Handel operas and the music is livelier, simpler and more popular, with some adventurous cadences and leaps in the recitative. The static da capo song form still rules: every good musical idea comes round more than once, usually more than twice. That the action keeps moving forward is a credit to the constantly developing wit of the staging (here revived, as formerly, by Julia Hollander) and of David Fielding's exhilarating designs.

The use of the chorus - they barely sing, but they're on stage a great deal, elegantly suited and turbanned in grey like a crowd sketched by Hogarth - is a master stroke, their wan garden-party decorum providing deliciously shockable resistance to the passions that drive the chief characters to make spectacles of themselves.

Four of the soloists sang in the last revival. Louise Winter is a strong Xerxes with pace, fire and pathos. Yvonne Kenny still has plenty of vocal substance as the beloved Romilda; mezzo Jean Rigby has sexy chest-voice hysterics as Amastris, whom Xerxes has abandoned; and Christopher Robson repeats his former success as the melodiously chromatic Arsamenes.

Newcomer Nerys Jones sings with edge and gleam as Atalanta. Mark Richardson is a vocally and physically dapper new father-figure, Ariodates, and Paul Napier-Burrows, new as the servant Elviro, brings shapely baritone singing and a comic presence. Ivor Bolton conducts his small forces with perfectly spun-out tension, clean sound and lyrical resource.

Nicholas Hytner translated the Italian text himself. It's jokey, but never so much as to undermine the intensity and sadness of the passions. Ebullient, epigrammatic language becomes a very English code for tender or brutal emotion under the stress of highly formal social patterning. Xerxes' Persia is politely mentioned in the rocky desert vistas that open up behind the verdant stage, in the exotic museum exhibits - like the illuminated phoenix egg - wheeled on in glass cases, and in the neat rows of giant cacti that replace the chorus when life gets particularly thorny in Act II. A dazzling distillation of 18th- century England with its exotic acquisitions and burning hearts: and vindication of a piece that didn't get the recognition it deserved in Handel's lifetime.

ENO Box office: 071-836 3161.

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