English Touring Opera at the Britten Theatre

"Neeeeaaaaoooow….” 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 the drama.

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 designs.

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.

- Mark Valencia