Theatre: Humorous liaisons

As Jeanette Winterson once observed, it's dislocation that makes us laugh: something expected in an unexpected place - your favourite aunt in a poker parlour. Or the reverse: something unexpected in an expected place - a poker in your favourite aunt. If theatre is (wrongly) regarded as a place of "high cultural value", opera, despite its reputation for excess, is believed to be the domain of artistic piety to the point of transfiguration. So where does comic opera fit in?

The chief problem is that comic opera is usually often nothing of the sort. Many's the time I've witnessed preposterously poor stage business being greeted by guffaws from the stalls. Visual gags that would barely raise a titter in the theatre will be met with delighted laughter in an opera house. Why? Relief: half the audience are only there out of cultural duty and expect to be bored rigid so when something vaguely amusing pops up they fall over with surprise.

The latest revival of Xerxes, however, proves that it doesn't have to be like that. Nicholas Hytner's scintillating ENO production of this great Handel opera may not induce heart attacks brought on by fits of hysteria, but the entire evening is graced with wit undimmed by the passage of time since this English-language production first appeared to celebrate Handel's tercentenary in 1985.

Here the audience laughs not because they've just read an unexpectedly rude word in the surtitles (a sure-fire way to get a laugh at Covent Garden) but because the show is genuinely funny. That's partly the plot - disguised Amastris loves Xerxes the king who loves Romilda who loves Arsamenes (the king's brother) who is also being chased by Romilda's sister Atalanta - but more than that, the humour and considerable pathos derive from the seriousness and dramatic intelligence brought to it by director and cast. Neither they nor the audience need to leave their brains at home.

As Atalanta, Susan Gritton is a quick-witted, deliciously scheming minx whose perfectly placed singing is one of the evening's many pleasures. Sarah Connolly's Xerxes lacks the sheer dramatic power of Ann Murray, who created the role, but the warmth and control of her voice are enormously impressive. But the real reason to rush to this production is Janis Kelly as the singer Romilda.

Singing Handel in English is not only a test of technical accomplishment (which she passes with flying colours), it poses huge dramatic problems, as most arias repeat the same few words endlessly. From the moment Kelly appears adopting a winningly arch "opera singer" guise, you know you are in safe hands. At all other times, she takes you deeper and deeper into the character. Her five-minute aria about the need for love to withstand fortune and fate that closes Act Two is beautifully sung but more importantly, her thoughts develop throughout it. At the end she repeats the opening phrase but it feels fresh and surprising. She takes you on a real dramatic journey.

So much for the received wisdom that singers cannot act.

Hytner's production, bolstered by David Fielding's witty sets and costumes, reminds you that Handel knew what he was doing when he set his texts. Opera belongs not on CDs with merely mellifluous singing, but in the theatre.

`Xerxes' is at the London Coliseum, WC2 (0171-632 8300) on 20, 23, 28 Feb, 4 & 6 Mar

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

    £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

    Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

    C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

    C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home