Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Delightful evening with a dark backdrop: Handel's Xerxes from ETO

Andrew Slater, Julia Riley - Handel Xerxes - English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
Andrew Slater, Julia Riley - Handel Xerxes - English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
Handel Xerxes; Julia Riley, Laura Mitchell, Galina Averina, Clint van der Linde, Carolyn Dobbin dir: James Conway, cond: Jonathan Peter Kenny; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Well sung, great ensemble acting and tremendous fun

Galina Averina, Laura Mitchel - Handel Xerxes - English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
Galina Averina, Laura Mitchell - Handel Xerxes
English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
English Touring Opera’s Autumn 2016 season started off with a revival of its 2011 production of Handel’s Xerxes at the Hackney Empire on 9 October 2016. Some of the cast were new and others were revisiting their roles from five years ago and they were using Nicholas Hytner’s 1985 translation for ENO, so there was a seasoned quality to this opening night. James Conway directed, with designs by Sarah Bacon, and Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted the Old Street Band with Julia Riley, Laura Mitchell, Galina Averina, Clint van der Linde, Andrew Slater, Carolyn Dobbin and Peter Brathwaite.

The set is simple and stylish, with a Nissen hut shown outside and inside, 1940s costumes and ubiquitous cigarettes and pipes. Apart from the back of a plane, it all looked very portable for the tours to a dozen venues. Much versatility is expected of the singers who are playing multiple roles on the tour which consists of three operas and a St John Passion.

This is a delightful production of what is in many ways one of Handel’s sunniest operas – all those love triangles that work out happily in the end.
Laura Mitchell, Clint van der Linde - Handel Xerxes - English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
Laura Mitchell, Clint van der Linde - Handel Xerxes
English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
Xerxes in love with Romilda who is in love with Arsamenes, as is her sister Atalanta. Amastris also in love with Xerxes who is in love with a plane (a Spitfire). Lots of letters get into the wrong hands and disguises are worn. Yet it is labelled an opera seria. We are dealing with vicious jealousy and some messy tangles. Furthermore, in this production the war is not some distant Persian war but the real thing. The Second World War provides us with a few gags (Elviro disguised as a spiv selling black-market nylons; Xerxes singing “Ombra mai fu” to a WWII plane), but also the projections of archive footage of skies criss-crossed with fighter planes, with sirens and explosions. It works well for the hapless Xerxes: not much of a warrior, and not much of a lover either, but he comes out of it all unscathed, thanks mainly to his shallowness.

The score is interesting in that it has few da capo arias, which means the action is propelled (sorry about the aviation pun – couldn’t resist) with little time for Handelian introspection. There are lots of ‘rage’ arias as the characters are all angry to a greater or lesser degree. The orchestra is small, with strings, theorbos, oboes and bassoon, in this show the Old Street Band held together brilliantly and energetically by Jonathan Peter Kenny.

Carolyn Dobbin - Handel Xerxes - English Touring Opera - ® Richard Hubert Smith
Carolyn Dobbin - Handel Xerxes - English Touring Opera
® Richard Hubert Smith
Two screens on the proscenium arch were used for captions at the beginning of each scene, but there were no surtitles. I am not sure how well those further back in the audience and less well placed to lip-read would have coped (especially in the back of the stalls where the fridges in the bar are competing with the singers). The singers did better when they parked and barked, and I am sure they will adapt to other more favourable acoustics as they get into their stride.

But it all looked like tremendous fun, well sung and there was some great ensemble acting. There are half a dozen more chances to see it around the country in the next few weeks, I imagine in venues with a more word-friendly acoustic.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford



Handel Xerxes
English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Julia Riley – Xerxes
Laura Mitchell – Romilda
Galina Averina – Atalanta
Clint van der Linde- Arsamenes
Andrew Slater – Ariodate
Carolyn Dobbin – Amastris
Peter Brathwaite – Elviro

Conductor – Jonathan Peter Kenny
Old Street Band
Director – James Conway
Designer – Sarah Bacon
Lighting Designer – Mark Howland

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