(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 8 October 2016)
Xerxes and Spitfires both rank pretty highly on the list of things I get excited about, but I never imagined I’d have cause to refer to them both in the same sentence. Now that has all changed, thanks to English Touring Opera’s revival production, which transplants our favourite brat-prince to the airfields of the Battle of Britain. It opens with the glorious sight of our misguided king serenading a Spitfire (plane tree – plane – Spitfire – brilliant), as he contemplates his new campaign to rule the skies of Europe, and it’s sheer fun from there on in.
Bear in mind that I saw this production a mere 24 hours after landing from Shanghai, so I wasn’t even entirely sure what continent I was on. It’s possible this took the edge off my critical faculties, but the fact the show still managed to engage me in those circumstances was quite a feat (and let’s face it, no other opera with the exception of Artaserse could have managed it).
Xerxes (Julia Riley) is a squadron leader, a hearty, back-slapping sort of chap with unfortunate taste in women and a whiplash temper simmering underneath. This king of the air reminded me of my dad’s stories about Noël Agazarian, the dashing Battle of Britain ace who won the nickname ‘the Sun King’ (I hasten to add that I’m not implying anything about Agazarian’s temper). Xerxes has grand plans for using his new Spitfires as game changing weapons for the war of the skies, thanks to the innovations of his designer Ariodates (Andrew Slater). With this great weapon and his fearless fighter-pilot brother Arsamenes (Clint van der Linde) at his side, how can Xerxes fail?
Well, we all know that answer by now. Frailty (Xerxes’ frailty, in this case), thy name is woman. Romilda, to be exact. Ariodates’ lovely daughter (Laura Mitchell) works at the airfield as a nurse and sometime entertainer of the wounded troops, alongside her pert younger sister Atalanta (Galina Averina). Both sisters, unfortunately, are captivated by Arsamenes, who has eyes only for Romilda; even more unfortunately, Xerxes is also enchanted by Romilda and resolves to make her his wife, unable to credit that anything could possibly stand in his way. The scene is set for a sibling spat to rival the real war that’s unfolding all around them. And, just as the final straw, Xerxes’ equanimity is due to be tried further by the arrival of an unexpected player in the game. His fiancée, the foreign princess Amastris (Carolyn Dobbin), arrives in her own plane to help the war effort and, realising that all is not as it should be, adopts the overalls of a humble engineer while she scouts the lie of the land. What she sees is enough to rapidly reduce her to reliance on her hip-flask. What can be done? Will everyone finally, in a highly implausible fashion, end up with their rightful spouse?
Of course they will. But in an opera it’s the journey not the end that matters and here it was a delightful ride. Through the fog of my weariness, I noted that there were times the pace could have been crisper and quicker – my two beloved rage arias, Se bramate d’amar and Crude furie, were neither as furious nor as galloping as I like them – but I’m very hard to please on that front. The singing was all of a terrifically high standard and I was especially impressed with Julia Riley. First of all, she looked the part: from the Sarah Connolly school of trouser roles, she was tall and solid, all squared shoulders, swagger and short Brylcreamed hair. From the Dress Circle she made an entirely convincing man. And her voice was lovely: rich and warm, with equally strong depths and heights and full of dramatic expression. All I wanted was a bit more fury and fire for her rage-arias, although she did manage to demolish a bunch of flowers during Se bramate and I loved the idea of setting Crude furie during an air raid. If only it had been half as fast again, and spat out with savage vengeance, it would’ve been perfect.
The other discovery of the night was Clint van der Linde. I hadn’t heard him before, although my friend spoke highly of his Ottone, which she saw last year. He was very impressive for both the strength and richness of his voice, despite the occasional wobble on notes. I’m not sure whether or not the show was miked: if not, van der Linde is one of the most powerful countertenors I’ve heard. Indeed, he had some of the vocal hardness that Riley occasionally lacked and I found myself, once or twice, wondering what he’d have been like singing Crude furie.
Of the women, Galina Averina was particularly striking, offering a forceful and petulant Atalanta. I saw Averina in the Handel Festival’s Giove in Argo a couple of years ago and her voice has got a lot stronger since, while her effortless command of coloratura remains. I was amused by this production’s interpretation of the dynamic between the sisters: usually Romilda is rather elevated and serene, but here she was all too aware of her little sister’s ambitions. There was a remarkably spiteful edge to this Romilda, resulting in sisterly tussling: a refreshing change for a character who’s often rather dull. I thought Laura Mitchell was very good, although she did linger slightly in the shadows of Averina’s dazzling vocal fireworks. As for our wronged princess, Carolyn Dobbin had a lovely warm tone, although as a mezzo she didn’t quite have the simmering, spicy darkness of contraltos like Hilary Summers who’ve sung the role. Dobbin leapt into her part with dramatic gusto and I loved the idea of a feisty Amastris who reads Virginia Woolf by torchlight and lurks around, half-drunk on gin, wielding a penknife. Somehow that comes closer to the spirit of the real historical lady than most Amastrisses I’ve seen.
Our two more comic characters felt respectively a little underused vocally and a little overused dramatically. Peter Brathwaite’s Elviro was very strong, with a lovely sense of comic timing and an evident crush on Atalanta from the word ‘go’. With a tweak to the libretto, he changed from flower-seller to nylon-seller, a spiv with a coat full of goodies to tempt any lady’s fancy. Unfortunately for Brathwaite, the production cut the scene of the bridge’s collapse (understandably, since here there is no bridge), which deprived him of Elviro’s comic love-song to the power of drink. On the contrary, a little of Andrew Slater’s bumbling Ariodate went a long way – it was the concept of the character, not the singing, that became slightly irritating. I could have done without him hurtling around in the background of Crude furie, in ‘amusing’ mad-scientist mode, holding a bomb. That’s a scene where everything should be focused on Xerxes’ own imminent combustion.
Some reviews have criticised the diction, which I didn’t think was too bad, but I suppose it depends what you’re comparing it against. Maybe their yardstick was the crystal-clear diction we hear in musicals, whereas my point of comparison was your average Baroque opera where diction is frequently a problem even in famous singers (Franco Fagioli, I’m looking at you). Nor did I notice too much swamping by the orchestra, although there were a couple of times when Julia Riley was a touch too quiet. I’m also surprised that some critics have had difficulty with the Battle of Britain setting. In an age when directors are increasingly serving up settings that have absolutely no relevance to the plot of an opera, is it really so hard to accept this update? Xerxes is one of the easiest operas to relocate, because it isn’t really tied to its historical setting. In fact, as far as I know, no one has ever actually done an ancient Persian Xerxes, which strikes me as something of an oversight. Essentially it’s a story about a powerful, arrogant man undermined by love. You could have a mafia Xerxes, a House of Commons Xerxes, a Wild West Xerxes, a Xerxes on a starship or (a dream personal project) a pirate Xerxes. In my opinion, a Battle of Britain Xerxes is genius. And I don’t think my critical faculties were that impaired by my travels. The grudging reviews in the press seem rather unfair.
I’m very happy that I was able to get back from China in order to see this production, which will now be touring across the UK along with the other two shows currently on ETO’s programme. I’ll be seeing both of these at Hackney during the next few days, and both are operas new to me: Cavalli’s Calisto on Friday (featuring the lovely Susanna Fairbairn), and Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria on Saturday. Should be great fun!