Composer: George Frideric Handel
Librettist: Adapted from Silvio Stampiglia’s 1694 libretto. English version by Nicholas Hytner.
Conductor: Jonathan Peter Kenny
Director: James Conway
Reviewer: Kelyn Luther
When Handel premiered Xerxes in 1738, it was a commercial failure – as an opera seria, audiences did not expect comic elements. ETO has taken Nicholas Hytner’s 1985 English translation and successfully reset it in 1940, during the battle of Britain.
At the centre of Xerxes is a love square between four siblings; the king Xerxes (Julia Riley) in love with his brother Arsamedes’ (Clint Van Der Linde) girlfriend Romilda (Laura Hutchinson), whose sister Atalanta (Galina Averina) is in love with Arsamedes.
The opera starts with Xerxes singing the famous opening aria Ombra mai fu to a Spitfire. In the original libretto, it is a plane tree. This witty substitute marks the start of a production full of light touches that make it accessible instead of elitist.
Xerxes could be performed as a straightforward villain but Riley shows his behaviour as folly rather than malice. On the page, Xerxes does not seem sympathetic but Riley makes the audience inclined to sympathise with his frustration at being spurned. The characterisation works with the period. Riley portrays Xerxes as attempting to be a dashing pilot and Romilda is a military nurse.
Averina and Mitchell have convincing chemistry as sisters Atalanta and Romilda. In one scene their squabble involves arm biting and hair pulling – the sort of viciousness only siblings get away with (the scene is nicely mirrored with Xerxes and Arsamedes in Act 2).
The relatability of characters and level of realism is not necessarily what you would expect from and it reflects director James Conway’s joyful approach to the material.
Though the three central actresses are remarkable, Mitchell, in particular, stands out. Rather than making Romilda a passive object, Mitchell radiates joy. Romilda’s little victory dances are particularly endearing.
As Romilda’s sister Atalanta, Averina is fun and flirty; like Riley, Averina does not emphasise villainy but depicts the spiteful behaviour that unrequited love provokes. Atalanta’s sheer audacity makes her strangely admirable.
Nicholas Hytner’s translation is strong, without any clunkiness. Even when dealing with rhyme, Hytner avoids the rhymes coming across as forced. Singing in English, however, has its drawbacks. What sounds beautiful in Italian sounds more mundane in English, which is why ETO’s less formal production works. Without being able to enjoy the musicality of Italian, repeated lines do not have the same intensity. Even this accomplished production does not completely avoid that.
Surtitles would be useful; it’s sung in English but the operatic vocals mean that you cannot hear all of the words. Fortunately, Riley and Mitchell sing very clearly but Clint Van Der Linde as Arsamenes, though he has a pleasant tone to his voice, loses many words.
Arsamenes is dull, partly because of the libretto and partly due to Van Der Linde’s performance. Van Der Linde lacks the devotion towards Romilda that would make Arsamenes noble even if the script doesn’t allow him much opportunity to be charming.
Though a minor character, Peter Braithwaite as Elviro, Arsamenes’ servant is memorable for the comedy he provides. The highlight of his performance is his disguise as a black marketer flogging silk stockings.
Bernadette Iglich as movement advisor uses natural movement rather than the artificiality of traditional operatic style of physicality. Even in moments of stillness during the arias, it never feels stiff and it particularly enhances the dynamics between characters.
Mark Howland’s lighting shows the subtlety and nuance of the difference between day and night within the play. The striking introduction of red during key moments is not intrusive or heavy-handed.
Sarah Bacon’s costume design also works well, with recognisable military uniforms and the floral dresses that were fashionable in the period, creating a feeling of nostalgia.
The use of multimedia only comes in in the last act. it could be used more consistently but admittedly the video footage nicely underscores the relationship between Romilda and Arsamedes as we see flashbacks to happier times. Using video also invites the audience to think of the early British war films that are an influence on the adaptation, further opening out the production.
Overall, the WW2 setting works very well. It renews the opera by placing it in an era we are culturally familiar with. The setting liberates director James Conway from having to stick religiously to formal opera style, which makes it accessible and witty without losing the identity of traditional opera.
This is a genuinely entertaining production that will appeal to fans of romantic comedy as well as traditional opera audiences. It provides a fresh approach to an art form perceived by many as intimidating.
Reviewed on 22 November 2016 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith