Twenty years after its first appearance, Nicholas Hytner's classic production of Handel's Xerxes returns yet again to the London Coliseum. Revived this time around with considerable flair by Michael Walling, this Olivier Award-winning show still looks good, still sounds good and is set to pack them in once more over the next few weeks. It's been one of English National Opera's greatest triumphs, and that's remarkable in itself given that Handel's operas - which all the major UK companies tackle regularly these days - were once regarded as hopelessly antiquated and even unstageable.
Serse - as it's called in the original Italian - was written, like the bulk of Handel's operas, for London, and had just five performances at the capital's main opera house, the King's Theatre in the Haymarket (where Her Majesty's Theatre now stands) in 1738. Handel never revived it - and neither did anyone else until 1924, when the modern resurrection of Handelian opera was just gearing up in Germany. Xerxes proved one of the most appealing to 20th century audiences, and had its first UK staging in nearly 200 years in 1935. Fifty years on, along came Hytner and Handel specialist Sir Charles Mackerras, who co-edited the score and conducted the 1985 performances. And the rest is history.
Part of the reason for the appeal of Xerxes was that it confounded expectations of what opera seria should be. This is not surprising, because it's not a serious opera at all, but shot through with irony, and even has one full-scale comic character - the bass role of Elviro, servant to Xerxes's brother Arsamenes - taken here by the sturdy-voiced Graeme Danby, in self-mocking mode. But the whole stance of the piece is almost post-modern in its tendency to deflate the control-freakery of the central character, the ancient Persian monarch Xerxes, a couple of whose exploits form the only genuinely historical elements in the plot. Betrothed to Amastris, heiress to a neighbouring kingdom, who hasn't heard from him in so long that she has to come to find out what's going on disguised as a soldier in his army, Xerxes has decided that he prefers Romilda, daughter of his general Ariodates. But she's in love with his brother, Arsamenes, while her sister Atalanta is in love with him too...
Confused? Of course, but this complex, multi-angled set-up, worked out over the three acts like some intricately choreographed dance routine, offered Handel the possibility of umpteen arias in which each of the characters in turn could express the particular emotional position they have arrived at now. And part of the light-textured charm of the score is that Handel provides his singers with far more short and immediately attractive arias than in your average opera seria. It's very hard to resist the piece's sheer melodic flow.
Especially when it is as well cast as it is here. Katarina Karnéus, wearing one of designer David Fielding's exotically Oriental 18th-century costumes, steers a fine line between heroics and mock-heroics in her acting, and sings with bold tone and appreciable agility. Mezzo Lucy Schaufer brings an almost Judy Garland-like punch to her determination to get her man back. Lawrence Zazzo blazes away as Arsamenes, the very antithesis of the thin and reedy counter-tenor sometimes encountered in such roles.
There's a deft and delightful Atalanta from the spirited Sarah Tynan and a firmly authoritative Ariodates from Neal Davies. But arguably the most interesting performance comes from Janis Kelly as Romilda. After a slightly shaky start, her finely detailed acting and musically insightful singing go right to the heart of both character and score. She manages to inject emotional reality into the most fanciful situations.
Mackerras's co-editor of the score back in 1985, Noel Davies, returns to conduct benignly, if with a less than ideal quotient of impetus, but the orchestra sounds very presentable. Meanwhile Hytner and Fielding's visual conceits - the hedge-clipping, the Nineveh sphinxes, the tea-ceremony, Xerxes's model bridge collapsing and the rest - all continue to work the trick. I wouldn't like to bet that this is the last time around for this Ancient Persian treat, but maybe you should check it out by mid-December, just in case.
To 6 December, 0870 145 0200Reuse content