(English National Opera with Michael Hofstetter, until 3 October 2014)
This was all rather spontaneous. Having heard good things about the ENO’s current production of Handel’s Xerxes, I managed to get a last-minute ticket up in the balcony for Friday night and headed off for my inaugural Handel opera. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to be like. It was lyrical rather than bombastic; humorous rather than noble; and full of the kind of bubbly wit that made it feel disconcertingly like The Marriage of Figaro. I knew virtually none of the music: the only aria I had to hand on my tablet was Se bramate d’amar vi chi sdegna from Cencic’s Handel album. It turned out of course that I knew another aria as well: it was a bit of a surprise when the opera opened with Ombra mai fù. (No, I didn’t know it was sung to a plane tree either: you learn something every day.)
Xerxes, the king of Persia, falls in love with the beautiful Romilda and decides to have her as his wife. Unfortunately Romilda is already in love with his brother Arsamenes, who returns her affections. But Romilda’s conniving sister Atalanta is also in love with Arsamenes. When she realises that Xerxes is wooing her sister, she decides to do all that she can to get Romilda into the king’s arms, leaving Arsamenes free for her (even if that means indulging in some fairly low-level deceit). Just to make matters more complicated, Xerxes is already betrothed to the foreign princess Amastris. She arrives in Persia at the start of the opera in disguise, unable to wait any longer to see her royal fiancé for herself. What she finds, of course, is Xerxes mooning over Romilda and plotting how he can free himself from his bond to Amastris without losing too much face. Indignantly Amastris decides to bide her time and maintain her disguise. Dressed as a Persian soldier, she waits and watches, and occasionally gets caught up in the action, as she tries to think of a way to bring Xerxes to his senses.
Of course, I’d come all geared up for knotty Persian intrigue and had been expecting something rather more serious (with at least one Grand Vizier, surely?); but instead I was faced with this perky little sparkler of a show. Not that I’m grumbling: it was delightful. The production is a bit of an ENO classic, I believe. It was first staged in 1985 and been very popular ever since; you can even get it on DVD, with a previous cast. The design transports you to Persepolis via the 18th-century Vauxhall pleasure gardens in London, and so the action takes place among green lawns and deck chairs. Sober crowds occasionally file in to admire curiosities, witness ceremonies or take tea. They are waited on by unsettling black-clad waiters with whitened, mask-like faces. Occasionally the white panelled walls of the set rise up to disclose a vista of rocky orange desert beyond.
The Persian 5th century BC doesn’t make much of an appearance, but now and then there were some playful visual references. I was thrilled when they wheeled on a full-size replica of one of the enormous human-headed winged bull statues from the Gate of All Nations at Persepolis, even though it was only there for one scene. And there are other witty Persian touches: a miniature model of Persepolis ‘in the distance’ at the back of the stage; a row of columns lowered down to suggest the Hall of the Hundred Columns; and an enormous reproduction of a griffin from a Persian column capital. Xerxes wears a frock coat of embroidered Persian silk which makes him look as if he’s wandered out of a Turkish-era Liotard portrait.
I spent the first half up in the balcony, but a very kind friend (a fellow fagiolista from last Sunday) invited me to join her in the stalls for the second half. It was odd: in both places it sounded as though the orchestra was slightly drowning out the singers: their lower notes were sometimes lost, although of course the glorious high notes pierced through loud and clear. It was a shame because I couldn’t always hear the full range of the voices and it took me most of the first act to get into it.
I’d been told to look out for Alice Coote (Xerxes) and thoroughly enjoyed her performance: she had the necessary swagger and arrogance down pat and she was a great comedian (the toppling statues!). Her Xerxes was bombastic and slightly ridiculous: amiable enough when everything was going his way, but with flashes of vindictive petulance when crossed. I very much liked her performance of Più che penso and I also admired the ornamentation she fitted into Crude furie. Rhian Lois was a delightful Atalanta, all flounce and mischief with a voice to match; and although Romilda gets slightly overshadowed by her sister’s spritz, Sarah Tynan brought a lovely pure soprano to the part. I had slightly more mixed feelings about Andrew Watts’s Arsamenes, who managed to convey the difficult mixture of humour and pathos demanded by the role. He had some striking high notes, but his lower level felt a bit wobbly now and then (that may have been partly the fault of the music swamping him). I tried desperately not to make invidious comparisons, but it was difficult. Catherine Young’s Amastris had a lower pitched voice so was sometimes hard to hear above the music, but she seemed to have lovely control, and she played the part with noble resignation, blended with principal-boy gusto; her scene opposite the baritone Adrian Powter’s bearded Elviro (disguised as a flower-seller) was wonderfully funny.
As the final act rolled towards the closing scene, I wondered how on earth everyone was going to be happily paired off. It was evidently required, but it didn’t look at all likely. This production deals with it cleverly: Xerxes realises his folly and agrees to marry the faithful Amastris, but as the curtain comes down this pair of lovers looks anything but happy. Amastris is stranded nervously at the back of the stage, while Xerxes stands alone, set apart by his rank but also by his inability to fully relinquish his inappropriate desires. It added a note of psychological realism: if everyone had fallen into everyone else’s arms and lived happily ever afterwards, that would have stretched credibility even in an opera.
However, this was an excellent initiation to Handel. It may not be typical of his operas, but it was fun and sprightly and I loved the production, even if the sound wasn’t always perfect. I’m really tempted to buy the DVD; Ann Murray looks a bit too girlish as Xerxes, but I’d love to settle down with it and get to know the opera better. Having said that, I really very much want to see it done in Italian at some point. I’d also like to see Xerxes sung by a man, if only out of curiosity: in the first performance, the role was taken by none other than Caffarelli (so no doubt there are some stories of tantrums and clashes to dig up there). And, since I have a great fondness for grandeur, pomp and circumstance, I’m looking forward to seeking out performances of some of Handel’s more conventional operas. Thanks so much to those who encouraged me to go!
P.S. For another review of the same performance that I went to, hop over to Dehggial’s blog.