A Spitfire? When Handel composed his
‘operetta seria’ Serse in 1738, aerial warfare may not have
been uppermost in his mind; but James Conway’s new production for English
Touring Opera (‘Xerxes’ in English) is an ack-ack-happy affair set in a WWII
aerodrome. RAF stereotypes, walking wounded and point-of-view images of strafing
make for a generally amusing but intermittently uncomfortable comic staging.
This gung-ho stuff is less a concept than a hook upon which
to hang Handel’s plot, and as such it serves its purpose. What really counts is
the music-making, which is terrific. The Old Street Band plays like a charm for
Jonathan Peter Kenny; the counter-tenor-turned-conductor shapes a gorgeous
reading, flowing and spruce, that never fails to support the singers and favour
Xerxes himself is played by Julia Riley (who must wonder why
ETO keeps casting her as a man; she was Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito
a few months ago) and the steadfast mezzo launches the production with a
carefree account of ‘Ombra mai fu’, the King’s celebrated paean to a plane
(geddit?) tree. Nicholas Hytner’s exemplary translation renders this as ‘Under
thy shade’, the shadow on this occasion being that of the entire UK Air Arm
passing overhead in Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway’s effective video
Riley camps a splendidly masculine Xerxes, pipe firmly
clamped in lantern jaw, upper body lurching with testosterone-fuelled swagger,
and disbelief is suspended throughout her fraternal confrontations with
Arsamenes (the excellent counter-tenor Clint van der Linde) and romantic
interludes with Laura Mitchell’s ravishingly sung, radiantly adorable Romilda.
Only at the point where (s)he half-strips for action do we raise an eyebrow.
The opera’s rambling storyline is little more than a
roundabout of sexual attachments. Who loves whom, who double-crosses whom, who
ends up with whom – such fripperies need not detain us. The one overtly comic
character, Arsamenes’s servant Elviro (Nicolas Merryweather), is presented as a
stocking-selling spiv, and Romilda’s daddy, Ariodates (Andrew Slater) as a
scientist busily inventing the bouncing bomb (which puts Barnes Wallis in his
place). Everyone else is part of la ronde.
Rachael Lloyd is entertaining if a little muted as Amastris,
the princess-in-disguise – as an aircraft mechanic, naturally – who is betrothed
to the errant Xerxes; but Paula Sides eats up her scenes as Atalanta, the
jealous sister of Romilda with whom she shares an hysterically funny bedtime
argument (“If you seduce him his heart is mine”). Aside from the aerodrome’s
priapic windsock, this catfight amid the dogfights is the most joyous of
Conway’s inventions. The evening of uniformly first-rate vocal work touches the
sublime in places, nowhere more so than when Sides protests to Slater “You want
me to forget him, but you cannot tell me how”.
Handel’s lengthy opera has been trimmed in true ETO fashion
by eliminating the chorus (except for the obtrusion of a pre-recorded snatch
heard on the wireless) and by focusing on material that advances the story. It
is seamlessly done. James Evans’s sensitive lighting and Sarah Bacon’s tidy
designs add greatly to the success of a production that takes flight in more
ways than one.