Xerxes, English Touring Opera, ETO, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, October 2011

Power and youthful passion are grist to the mill of Handel’s plots, and James Conway’s production is set on a World War II air base with Xerxes as the new ruler, whose enthusiasm for the Spitfire is matched by his infatuation for the lovely wartime nurse and singer Romilda. His brother, fighter pilot Arsamenes, is also in love with Romilda, and she and her younger sister Atalanta, both in love with Arsamenes themselves, are daughters of the military scientist Ariodates. His new bomb very nearly bounces on the stage when Xerxes grabs it in Act III, whooshing it around out of the grip of its inventor as if it were the great egg in Firebird, holding the heart of this ‘Barnes Wallis’-like magician.

Xerxes and Spitfire, all photos Richard Hubert Smith

Fantastical stuff, but using Nicholas Hytner’s modern translation it works rather well, and the singers shine with youthful energy. Jonathan Peter Kenny drives it all forward from the orchestra pit, and Julia Riley as Xerxes sings with wonderful clarity, portraying the king as a sleek-haired, pipe-smoking man who is quite sure of his own mind, yet rather facile in his passions. Rachael Lloyd sings with equal clarity as the foreign princess Amastris, who is promised to Xerxes, and her appearance as one of the foreign pilots seems entirely natural.

Arsamenes with Atalanta and Romilda

Setting the action in Britain, rather than Italy, Persia, or anywhere else, suits a composer who made England his home, and the backdrop showing part of the East Anglian coastline served the production well, imbued as it was with subtle changes of lighting, from reds to greens and blues. Along with occasional aircraft sounds and projections of their silhouettes, this simple production is a very effective backdrop for the singers, whose performances were of uniformly high standard. Laura Mitchell sang beautifully as Romilda, and she and Paula Sides as her sister Atalanta both gave fine performances, as did Andrew Slater, who was entirely convincing as their father the military scientist. Nicholas Merryweather added a distinctly disreputable touch as the rain-coated Elviro who flashes his ‘stockings from Paris’ to the ladies, and Clint van der Linde was a suitably masculine counter-tenor as the king’s brother Arsamenes.

Handel cognoscenti may regret some of the cuts, but the youthful energy of the singers gives a sense of urgency to the performance, bringing on the dénouement with admirable despatch. Romilda and Amastris are finally united with the men they love, and the world can move on — after all, there’s a war going on.

After a further performance at the Britten Theatre on Oct 13, Xerxes tours to: Buxton Opera House, Oct 21; West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, Oct 26; Lincoln Theatre Royal, Oct 31; Harrogate Theatre, Nov 5; Snape Maltings, Nov 12; Exeter Northcott, Nov 18, 19; Malvern Theatres, Nov 24, 25.

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