Review: Xerxes (Hackney Empire and tour)

ETO revives its WWII airbase production of Handel’s popular opera

Julia Riley as Xerxes and Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes in Xerxes (ETO)
Julia Riley as Xerxes and Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes in Xerxes (ETO)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Five years on it's still fun, but there's a problem with English Touring Opera's Battle of Britain staging of Handel's opera. So much post-show grumbling must mean something, and ear-wigging some departing patrons I twigged that they were not so much outraged as baffled by it.

I'd lay a spiv to a Spitfire it's ETO's decision to dispense with surtitles, rather than the look-at-me theatrics, that spoiled their evening. It did mine, too, up to a point, even though Xerxes (Serse) is such a familiar Handel opera. So the best advice for anyone tempted to catch it on its travels is: chocks away and tally-ho, but do your homework first.

Lesson one: King Xerxes and his brother, Arsamenes, are both in love with the same woman, Romilda. However, the king is already betrothed to Princess Armastris and she has her own ideas. So a love triangle becomes a love square and, if Romilda's sister Atalanta gets her way (for she too loves Arsamenes), it will soon be a love pentagon.

Lesson two: The above, but relocated to an RAF airbase in 1940 with Xerxes as Squadron Leader. (Do keep up.) And, well, good luck, because from here on in you're flying solo.

Handel's immortal Largo, "Ombra mai fu", is sung to a plane tree in the original but to a plane of the 'zoom' variety here. A flight of battle-bound aircraft passes overhead to add piquancy to the translation (by Nicholas Hytner) as "Under thy shade". It's a bit pat, and later in James Conway's production the split between comedy, whimsy and grim historical reality becomes uncomfortable, especially during extended newsreel footage of actual ground strafing. But mostly it works.

The impact is never less than bracing

Julia Riley is back in her best Kenneth More mode as Xerxes, a trouser role of cruel virtuosity that she handles with colour and aplomb while sporting a natty line in service uniform. Soprano Laura Mitchell and countertenor Clint van der Linde also return from the earlier cast (2011 review here), quite splendid as Romilda and Arsamenes respectively, as does the excellent Andrew Slater as Romilda's father Ariodate (here an RAF scientist).

This admirable quartet is joined by newcomers Carolyn Dobbin as Amastris and Galina Averina as Atalanta, They throw themselves happily into the spirit of Conway's production amid Sarah Bacon's restrained designs, and the excision of Handel's chorus numbers is scarcely noticed.

Apart from the aforementioned Spitfire (of which we only see the tail), the aforementioned spiv is the best thing in it. Peter Brathwaite, a young baritone of tremendous presence and talent, elevates the minor role of Elviro by dint of sharply defined physical work, a honeyed voice and, praise be, immaculate diction.

Some of his colleagues sacrifice textual clarity at the altar of athletic Handelian delivery, and as they rush to keep up with conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny's sprightly speeds you can see their point. But the musical impact is never less than bracing, abetted by outstanding musicality from the company's regular baroque orchestra, the Old Street Band, an outfit that compares with the best.

If only there were surtitles.

Xerxes tours to Malvern, Bath, Saffron Walden, Portsmouth, Buxton, Durham and Exeter until 22 November.