Xerxes, English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Despite some questionable new productions of late, ENO s revivals come up as sparkling as when they were new, and none more so than this brilliantly fresh and effervescent revival of Nicholas Hytner s 13-year-old production of Handel s sublime opera.

Emma Jenkins directs an exceptional cast - who are mostly new to their roles in this house - with panache, wit, pathos and energy and secures such vivid acting and interaction from them that it s like watching this production for the first time (and I ve seen the last two revivals). Jenkins is faithful to the letter of the production, and it bursts onto the stage as proof, if proof were needed, that Handel is a superbly theatrical composer and, when done well, makes a huge impact on the audience. The Coliseum was packed to the rafters on the night I attended, with the audience roaring its approval of the performance at the end - and rightly so.

Sarah Connolly starts nervously in the title role - probably because she s singing it for the first time and also because the role is usually associated with the great Ann Murray in this house. Yet Connolly s tone blossoms as the evening progresses and she rounds off the evening with an impassioned account of her last aria. She struts the stage with an air of imperiousness and looks marvellous.

As Romilda, Janis Kelly s soprano has never sounded better. She brings a gorgeous creaminess to her singing and holds the audience breathless with her pyrotechnics. The Polish countertenor Artur Stefanowicz makes his UK debut in the role of Arsamenes and sings better than any countertenor I ve heard. Previous incumbents in this role have tended to display a peculiarly nasal hootiness, so associated with British countertenors. Not here; it is almost like listening to a soprano. Stefanowicz s range is phenomenal and even throughout, from top to bottom. I hope he returns to the house soon.

Susan Gritton is delightful as Atalanta, Jean Rigby (from the original cast) sings an impassioned Amastris, and Mark Richardson and Christopher Booth-Jones provide the comedy in the two bass roles.

In the pit, Noel Davies secures faultless playing from the orchestra, alive to every nuance of the score and sets the seal on a remarkable evening of music making.

This ENO production of Xerxes is a must!

Keith McDonnell, February 1998