I began this review thinking comparisons with those who have previously sung these roles in Nicholas Hytner’s extraordinary 1985 production of Xerxes should probably be avoided, but, wouldn’t you know, my fellow critics across the broadsheets and internet have leapt into this muddy pit with gusto. I feel transported back to a typical 18th century theatre where those in the more expensive boxes of the third tier would throw pasta onto the heads of the poor souls in the “pit”, while the rival supporters of the castrati challenge each other in the streets surrounding what is now Trafalgar Square.
It is of course wonderful to hear an 18th century opera without cuts, even more satisfying to sit in the theatre for almost four hours (including the time taken to sip a glass of champagne in the interval) and be entertained and engaged throughout the evening by total commitment from the performers. The award-winning production was revived on this occasion by Michael Walling, conducted by Michael Hofstetter and, rather wonderfully, was attended by Nicholas Hytner himself, who must only have been fourteen when he created this masterpiece of theatre. I loved every detail of the painted set, the Assyrian figures, the choreographed movements of chorus and servants, even the simplicity of using deckchairs.
True 18th century opera seria, written for and adored by Italians, would have been performed over a longer span than four hours, but back then it was normal practice for the audience to talk amongst themselves, to dine, entertain guests, even go and play a hand of cards during the lengthy stretches of recitative, only returning to enjoy the posturings of a Senesino or Farinelli aria, accompanied by oohs and aahs like a crowd watching a firework display. But Handel’s Xerxes, which was premiered in London in 1738, is a bit of a hybrid, rather than a true opera seria.
Handel was determined to import the genre which drew such fervent audiences in Italy to his adopted London, but he knew instinctively that the relative decorum and restraint of the British response to entertainment would make direct import unpalatable. Xerxes illustrates just how wonderfully skilled Handel was at commuting the genre of Italian seria to suit his public. The French never acquired a taste for the preening and cavorting of the castrati and, in Handel’s opinion the traditional structure of opera seria with all the drama contained in prolonged passages of recitative was not going to immediately appeal to the monoglot British he wanted to attract to his theatre in the Haymarket. A decade before, The Beggar’s Opera, which cocked a snook at the courtly conventions of Italian opera, had been a huge success and clearly still resonated in the minds of his target audience. What Handel cleverly does in response to this is write his first truly comic opera. The arias, which pile in one after another like London buses, are strophic rather than being in the formal da capo form, tipping the balance away from the recitative.
And so to this modern presentation of Handel’s truly innovative opera. The Sinfonia started briskly and I hoped we were going to hear the clean and lean playing and singing which has over the last decade become the accepted way of performing Baroque music elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps that was the conductor’s way of telling cognoscienti in the audience, “Yes, I know that’s how it should sound.” But it wasn’t long before, to my ears, some of the tempi were over-indulgent and over-romanticised, pulling Handel opera inexorably nearer to the bel canto era. It is a legitimate way of interpreting Handel, and perhaps an appropriate one when you cast large voices for such an immense auditorium as the Coliseum, but I’d like to take it back to the Baroque please.
Following in the hallowed footsteps of Ann Murray and Sarah Connolly, the role of Xerxes was undertaken by the mezzo Alice Coote, who was clearly determined to put her own stamp on the role. Miss Coote brought a whole raft of emotion to her performance; in fact there were few moments when she wasn’t emoting. It is a warm voice, full of tonal variety, although on this occasion she did sound strained to me at the top of the range. In fact Xerxes was written for Caffarelli himself, whose voice was clearly more akin to a soprano than a mezzo. It is quite a challenge for any singer, however great their reputation to open the show with “Ombra mai fu,” (here of course sung in English.) Miss Coote understandably didn’t sound entirely comfortable but she grew into the role as the opera progressed and brought her own interpretation of braggadocio to what is sung today as the trouser role.
Within her comfort zone, Miss Coote clearly possesses a huge, versatile and wonderful voice but I didn’t feel the role of Xerxes was her cup of tea. In the end I found myself coming home to listen to Sarah Connolly singing excerpts from the role on YouTube, to get myself back in the Handel zone. If you have a female singing Xerxes, which was written for a man, then logically you cast a thoroughly modern countertenor as his/her brother, Arsamenes. In this production ENO has cast Andrew Watts, known throughout the world as a singer of contemporary opera and in fact known for so much more at ENO than the back end of a pantomime dog in Raskatov A Dog’s Heart (as he was rather mawkishly described in the press information.)
Just as Miss Coote’s performance has divided the critics, so too has Mr Watts’ voice, even if they were unanimous in finding his energetic and endearing performance of the young lover little short of a brilliant comic turn. Now if the powers that be had cast a mezzo with the delicious combination of vocal flexibility (perfect for Handel) and the vocal power to move those of us sitting at the back, this production would have instantly become my favourite for 2014. One critic is clearly a Iestyn Davies fan. I know Mr Davies sings very prettily because I’ve heard him close-miked on television, but in ENO’s last Handel production (Rodelinda) I could barely hear a note until he came down stage at the end and shouted and I find his stage presence unconvincing. For me, Andrew Watts combines the poise, stage charisma and virtuosic technique of Lawrence Zazzo with the beauty of tone I’ve heard recently from Bejun Mehta and in the past from David Daniels. Yes, there was one strained note in the first act, but what the other critics didn’t know is that Mr Watts was suffering from a bad cold but refused to ask for the audience’s indulgence.
Sarah Tynan’s Romilda was a coquettish delight, making her a worthy duet partner with her Arsamenes. Rhian Lois caught my ear too, as well as acting her comic socks off. Catherine Young’s soft mezzo and convincing acting made her a worthy Amastris; I was particularly impressed with her true Handelian coloratura. Neal Davies as Romilda’s father played an ageing general with great gusto, holding his own against some great stage business behind him in which Xerxes appeared to knight his fellow soldiers. Adrian Powter was absoutely wonderful as Elviro, especially when in drag. (Conchita Wurst has a lot to answer for.)
All in all, if you want to hear some truly great singing and enjoy this production which offers a visual feast as well as lots of gags, then this incarnation of Xerxes is not to be missed.
Photos: Mike Hoban