Monday 21 November 2005

Review of Xerxes at the London Coliseum

To the London Coliseum on Saturday for a performance of Handel’s Serse (or Xerxes, to give it the English title). Nicholas Hyntner’s production is 20 years old but it has been spruced up and David Fielding’s designs look as handsome as ever. The title role was taken by Katerina Karneus, singing her first Handel role in the UK. Karneus looked handsome and fully inhabited the role; her stage demeanour reminded me of Ann Murray in the original production, but that might be memory playing tricks. Karneus has a warm, attractive voice and was suitable expressive in Handel’s fioriture. She got the character’s changeability but I though that the dangerous edge was lacking; something that Anne Sofie von Otter caught well in the concert performance at the Barbican.

Serse’s brother, Arsamene was played by the counter-tenor du jour, Lawrence Zazzo; an American based in the UK he has a warm, attractive voice in the American mold (rather than the cool English one), thankfully he does not overdo the vibrato. His Arsamene was suitably virile and very much the attractive lover. You wanted him to get the girl (Romilda) so his jealous rage in Act 3 was all the more shocking, and believable. Zazzo is an expressive actor, though he came perilously close to breaking the musical line for expressive purposes.

As their love interest, Janice Kelly was in fine vocal health; despite singing a wide range of roles in recent years she showed no signs of finding Handel’s virtuoso vocal line a problem. She was her usual communicative self, finding much pathos and humour in the part. Her voice has a cool, silvery quality (shading to a more steely tone when under pressure high above the stave) which she uses intelligently to such great effect that I did not miss the sheer beauty of tone that other singers have brought to the part.

As her sister, Atalanta, Sarah Tynan contributed her third stunning performance this season. Having found her moving in Jephtha and sympathetic in Carmelites I was very impressed by her poised, selfish and self-confident Atalanta. If she keeps this up and does no try to go too far too quickly, then Tynan will go far.

Serse’s betrothed, Amastris, who spends virtually the whole opera disguised as a man, was played with aplomb by Lucy Schaufer (who previously appeared in On the Town, how's that for versatility). Schaufer has a lovely voice, aptly suited to this part but she has not yet got the knack of managing to fill the Coliseum with her voice.

Graeme Danby was the comic servant Elvino; Danby managed the character’s swift transitions from serious to comic rather well. Neal Davies played Atalanta and Romilda’s father, a role that seems to be rather underwritten given that it was designed for the great bass Montangnana.

Noel Davies conducted the much reduced orchestra, the result was sparkling and sprightly. The players capturing much period feel on their modern instruments. We were sitting in the Upper Circle and much of the dialogue was perfectly understandable. A fabulous evening, I only wish we had time to go back for the alternative cast (Robin Blaze as Arsemenes and Sarah-Jane Davies as Romilda).

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