Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★★

(Longborough Festival Opera at the Britten Theatre, 30 July 2015)

After Highgate and Dusseldorf, the third and final stop on this year’s Xerxes trail was the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music, where the Longborough Young Artist Production was showing for one night only. I noticed several immediately striking things about it.

First, it was sung in Italian. I’ve been desperate to see an Italian Xerxes ever since the ENO and now my wish was granted! Congratulations to the production team for deciding to stick to the original. No matter how excellent the translations that I’ve seen used, it’s wonderful to hear the words for which the music was written. The second striking thing was the profusion of pink palm trees: there was something rather fabulous about Xerxes singing Ombra mai fu while reclining on a couch beneath the feathered fronds of a fake pink palm.

The trees were part of the retro setting: a slightly seedy nightclub, sometime around the 1950s, whose short-tempered proprietor seems to be part-ringmaster and part-mob boss. It was a clever concept and certain aspects of the opera worked very well. Romilda catches Xerxes’ attention with her singing, so it makes sense that she should be the club’s leading showgirl; her father Ariodate becomes one of Xerxes’ fixers, skulking around with a mysterious briefcase (I couldn’t quite see inside: bundles of cash? Diamonds? Drugs?). Elviro is the club’s janitor, while Amastris makes her arrival in the guise of a well-heeled patron: dark glasses, voluminous tulle skirts, white fur cape. (Soon, however, she’s holding up a terrified employee at gunpoint and demanding his clothes.)

Handel: Xerxes

Romilda (Alice Privett) and one of the club’s maids (Chiara Vinci)

Not everything worked though. There was no real attempt to show the famous bridge, which meant that one of the main episodes of the plot didn’t make much sense; and from a staging point of view things could be slightly static, as characters often ended up simply singing from the club’s podium. (And a small technical gripe. The surtitles were not only poorly proof-read, but also very slow and sparse. I’m lucky because I know what’s going on, but for newcomers there were whole swathes of recitative where there wasn’t any text to tell them what was happening. Could do better.) But overall it was a design and concept that I liked very much: colourful, original, gutsy and fun.

One of the selling points about this production (had I needed persuading) was the presence of two very good young countertenors in the leading roles, neither of whom I’d seen before. Tai Oney made a sleek Arsamene, singing with expressive power and a strong command of coloratura, his voice bringing in some lovely warm lower notes, although I occasionally found him shrill in his highest passages, where he didn’t seem to have quite such firm control. He was a good comic actor too: this Arsamene was very much the long-suffering younger brother, rather than the more dominant figure imagined in Hampstead Garden Opera‘s version. Oney had plenty of opportunity to look mournful at the sheer absurdity of his situation.

Handel: Xerxes

Arsamene (Tai Oney) and Romilda (Alice Privett)

His Romilda was Alice Privett, one of the most memorable singers of the night for me. She had lovely control throughout her arias, especially in the gentler, sadder pieces, with bright and clear high notes, and a velvety depth to her voice which gave it resonance. As a character, Romilda doesn’t usually grip me, but I liked this production’s take on her. The team emphasise the age gap between her and Atalanta, making their rivalry into a half-playful tussle between sisters. Romilda doesn’t seriously see Atalanta as a threat until the episode with the stray love letter – while Atalanta, for her part, is the generic annoying little sister who has a crush on her big sister’s boyfriend and wants to grow up right now because it’s clear that adults have more fun. Abbi Temple was utterly delightful with her bunches, ankle-socks and buckled shoes, getting in everyone’s way and bubbling over with mischief. Her Un cenno leggiadretto was lovely, sung with sparkling verve while she clumsily tried to emulate showgirl moves, but she came across very much as an over-indulged teen rather than the sexual predator of the Dusseldorf version: kitten not vixen.

And what of our thwarted princess? Lucinda Stuart Grant certainly had an impressive entrance but I felt that she lacked a little confidence in the first half; I would have liked a touch more commanding ferocity, but perhaps it was a deliberate decision to make this Amastris more thoughtful and patient, quietly gathering material for her grand denouement at the end. In the second half she sounded stronger and turned in a very beautiful rendition of Cagion son io, one of the most heartbreaking arias in the opera, full of lyricism and deeply-felt emotion. As usual, the final scene with the reconciliation felt unconvincing and rushed, but that is a criticism of Handel and Stampiglia rather than the singers, who did their best to make Xerxes’ change of heart and Amastris’ forgiveness seem credible.

Handel: Xerxes

Atalanta (Abbi Temple) glimpses the possibilities of womanhood

As for the other two secondary roles, they don’t have an awful lot to do, being there primarily to offer comic relief among all the intrigue, but both were well-performed on Thursday. Jon Stainsby played Ariodate as well-meaning and slightly slow, while Matthew Durkan made the most of his opportunities as Elviro, turning up to hawk coloured feathers while dressed in an overstretched red spangled showgirl’s dress. (It is true, though, that HGO’s creative interpretation of the character continues to hold the crown.)

But the real success of a Xerxes rests on the shoulders of the main man. I’d listened to fragments of Arditti’s singing on YouTube and liked what I heard, but I didn’t have enough to form a clear opinion. Reviews from Longborough in the last few days had, however, suggested that I was in for a bit of a treat. The opening of Ombra mai fu was slightly tentative, but I’ve yet to see anyone tackle that killer messa di voce without a shade of caution; and Arditti swiftly settled into a very refined rendition. I became steadily more impressed throughout Act 1. Although he’s probably still horribly young, he already has the kind of voice that works so very well in this particular role: rich, supple and beautifully controlled, underlaid by a hard masculine edge.

Handel: Xerxes

Romilda (Alice Privett) and Xerxes (Jake Arditti)

He came into his own in Se bramate d’amar: I wish it had been ever so slightly faster, but even so it was an excellent performance of posturing petulance, and finished with a stroppy cadenza that left me grinning like a fool. After that I was waiting impatiently for Crude furie. When it came, I felt the first section was slightly less forceful than Se bramate, but Arditti ramped up the swagger during the B section and the da capo absolutely blazed. It was helped along by the most splendid tantrum I’ve seen on stage: potted plants and even a Rococo sofa went flying across the set, and Arditti conveyed a chilling physical aggression, circling his terrified dependants and darting at them like a cobra testing its range. This was the first credibly dangerous Xerxes I’ve seen: not a pompous little man trying to puff himself up, or an arrogant dandy full of comedy bombast, but a man who genuinely inspires fear with his unpredictable temper. And I loved it.

It was an engaging production, designed with flair and with an impressive cast who are no doubt going on to even greater things. While I liked the nightclub-mobster vibe, I felt that it wasn’t quite as psychologically astute as the HGO production (whose shock ending has pretty much ruined any other reading of the final scene for me now); nor did it have the anarchic daring of the Dusseldorf version (which, let’s face it, is probably a good thing). There were times when I longed for a little more pace and oomph from the orchestra, especially on the angry arias, but that’s personal preference and overall both playing and singing were of a very fine standard.

Handel: Xerxes

Atalanta (Abbi Temple), the club’s maid (Chiara Vinci), Elviro (Matthew Durkan) and the club’s waiter (Laurence Panter) brace themselves for the storm

But let’s be honest. The most exciting part of this evening was the chance to hear Arditti. I’d go so far as to say that he’s the best Xerxes I’ve seen on stage so far. He’s got the acting ability to pull off the tantrums while maintaining the necessary sense of danger; and he’s got exactly the right voice for the role. It’s a Yuriy Mynenko kind of voice (not as powerful or flamboyant yet, but the potential is there), with the agility and panache to tackle the crazy stuff, but also a suave grace that he can bring to bear on the gentler arias. I’ll be watching with great interest to see what he does next.

Well, ironically you’ll certainly be hearing about what he does next, because I already have a ticket for it: I hadn’t realised that he’ll be singing the role of Amore in the production of Poppea in Vienna this autumn, sharing the stage with Valer Sabadus, Christophe Dumaux, Emilie Renard and Rupert Charlesworth among others.

It’s going to be a bit of a dream team.

Handel: Xerxes

Xerxes (Jake Arditti) and Romilda (Alice Privett)

7 thoughts on “Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

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