OPERA: Handel's Xerxes, Steiner Theatre

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The Independent Culture
The minuscule theatre at the Rudolf Steiner Centre proved, perhaps unexpectedly, a good setting for Handel opera: the authentic instrument orchestra of nine, spiritedly directed from the harpsichord by Christian Cumyn, shared the small stage with a steep ramp and the singers. The setting (designed by ffinlo Costain) encouraged cast and players to interact - the continuo, complete with theorbo, was particularly lively. It made the most of thin resources and left no room for anyone to hide. The violins occasionally sounded scrawny but, after some initial nervousness, all the musicians played with spirit and considerable stylishness.

Handel wrote Serse (Xerxes) for some of the greatest singers in the world, for a theatre with spectacular scenic resources. The new Early Opera Company fielded a cast with no weak links, demonstrating what a wealth of talent exists among the junior ranks of British singers. Louise Mott excelled in the title role, wielding a beautiful, soft-grained mezzo voice with style and passion. Joanne Edworthy made the most of Arsamenes and Jane Stevenson was a memorable Amastre. Technically, these are a king, his brother and a princess convincingly disguised as a male warrior. Perhaps wisely, Sarah Alexander's production made no attempt to fool us. Xerxes and his brother cross-dressed in suits and ties, while the sultry Arsamenes wore warrior-red lipstick, a cascade of fair hair, black boots and a leather overcoat over a frumpy frock. The three women's internecine interaction may have suggested a pilot episode for Lesbians Behaving Badly, but nothing to frighten the horses there: it made perfect dramatic sense, thanks to the singers' wholehearted acting, so long as you ignored the masculine endings to the Italian nouns and adjectives.

Alexander Marengo takes the same small liberty, incidentally, in My Night with Handel, a Channel 4 film (to be shown on 3 August) featuring some great Handelian singing, fetching views of London and a loose (but, ah, televisual) narrative line that occasionally trivialises the music.

There was nothing trivial about this Xerxes, though. As the focus of romantic interest, Romilda was sung with great charm and a real sense of character by Amanda Boyd, who never allowed her sister and rival, Atalanta (the excellent Jeni Bern), to steal the show. Their scene in pyjamas was particularly well conceived. The Early Opera Company has got off to a promising start with this, its London debut. At its basis was some seriously good coaching, even if, as an awesome, shaven-headed man in leather remarked wistfully in the interval, "You just don't hear a good trill nowadays."

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