Xerxes, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2014

This sixth ENO revival of Handel’s late opera Xerxes (aka Serse) is a testament to the huge charms of Nicholas Hytner’s 1985 production, which presents the complex story of amorous intrigues in a Persian court with glorious clarity. Elegant, even stunning, costumes for the main characters contrast with drab for the courtiers and striking black and white for the servants, a stylized representation reflecting the seventeenth/eighteenth century European view of the Achaemenid Empire as if it were part of the later Ottoman milieu.

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

All images ENO/ Mike Hoban

Historically speaking, Xerxes was determined to avenge the defeat of Persian forces at the Battle of Marathon in the reign of his father Darius I, and in 480 BC set out to conquer Greece with what was probably the largest army the world had ever seen. We see a model of his first unsuccessful attempt to cross the Hellespont from Asia to Europe, and in the background a miniature model of the ruins of Persepolis (‘City of the Persians’ in Greek). This fits with an old European view of the vast Persian Empire, which failed to conquer Greece and lost the final decisive battles of Salamis and Plataea when Xerxes was king. Well-educated Europeans knew the history, and Handel was nothing if not a man of his own time.

Romilda and Arsamenes, Atalanta behind

Romilda and Arsamenes, Atalanta behind

The opera’s libretto, adapted from two previous ones — the first in 1654 for Cavalli — is really a vehicle for comedy involving Xerxes’ insistent desire for Romilda, daughter of his General Ariodates. She in turn is determined to marry the king’s brother Arsamenes, who adores her, and Xerxes should by rights marry his betrothed Amastris, heiress to a neighbouring kingdom. Just to complicate matters, Romilda’s sister Atalanta is secretly in love with Arsamenes, whose servant Elviro dresses as a woman while Princess Amastris dresses as a man. This gender confusion adds to the fact that both Xerxes and Arsamenes are travesti roles, but worry not. One simply sits back to enjoy the glorious singing and Hytner’s wonderful staging with Nicholas Fielding’s beautiful designs and Paul Pyant’s lighting, revived by Martin Doone, that shows extraordinary skies covering the full background.

Elviro and Amastris

Elviro and Amastris

Terrific singing from a cast led by the wonderful Alice Coote as Xerxes. Her performance gave a well nuanced interpretation of the manipulative, demanding and emotional Xerxes, and I loved the production’s final moments as she sings “Rise ye furies from baleful abysses”, knocking over three statues before the fourth crumbles to pieces at her command. In this hugely fun production Sarah Tynan was a lively and lovely Romilda, and Rhian Lois a delight as her sister Atalanta, reminding me of a shrewd Despina in Così. I adored Andrew Watts as a cleverly calm Arsamenes, and Adrian Powter was a hoot in Elviro’s female disguise. A strong performance by Neal Davies as Xerxes’ General Ariodates, colourfully costumed in contrast to his drab officers, and Catherine Young gave a forceful representation of the disguised princess Amastris.

Xerxes and Romilda

Xerxes and Romilda

Conducting by German baroque expert Michael Hofstetter gave a firm basis for the singers, but lacked lightness at times and the tempi caused the opera to run over its estimated running time of three and half hours.

Performances continue on various dates until October 3 — for details click here.

2 Responses to “Xerxes, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2014”

  1. Just wanted to point out that the role of Xerxes was originally written for and sung by a Castrato, therefore was not in any sense a travesti role. But you are right about Arsamenes, which was indeed written for a woman at the time and was a travesti role. It was always a source of amusement when we first mounted the production at ENO that Xerxes was sung by a woman (Ann Murray) and Arsamenes by a man (me), somehow turning Handel’s scoring a little upside down.

    • Mark Ronan says:

      Quite right, and many thanks for pointing out these facts about the original where Xerxes was the famous castrato Caffarelli.

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