Transported from Asia to a modernised setting, with a tree emblematic of man’s destruction of the natural world, Hampstead Garden Opera return to the baroque following last year’s production of Cavalli’s La Calisto Opening with Elviro quoting the introduction to the original libretto, we were clearly informed that this telling of Xerxes’ story was simple fiction. If this is the second Xerxes in a year for this city, after the revival of Hytner’s production at the Coliseum, anybody interested in an earlier version might want to run along to Lille or Vienna where Haïm will be conducting Le concert d’Astrée in performances of Cavalli’s 1660 setting, with additional ballet music provided by Lully.
Hytner’s English translation was used with cuts that brought the running time to just over two and a half hours, not too tiring for the largely engaging cast performing with the support of a one to a part string ensemble and doubled roles for oboes and recorders. It brought a relaxed chamber feel to the performance, giving the voices enough support without overpowering them within the confines of Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
The set was simple, a cold empty world, reminiscent of last year’s monochromatic Werther at Grimeborn, with director Andrew Davidson adding invented extra threads to the plot. This was a dream world, with a spoilt Xerxes being twinned by his more reflective brother Arsamenes, two sides to the same persona, just as Romilda’s character would be matched with Atalanta’s. Rather more curious was the conceit that Elviro would be presented to Xerxes disguised as ‘Ariodates’, with all the characters happy to play along with him being Romilda’s father, the exception being Xerxes himself who took things at face value. There was a slight over reliance on characters clicking fingers to freeze the action and step outside of their role and purple seems to be the new lighting of choice for dramatic moments: as with Teatro Massimo’s Cavalleria rusticana, when Elviro got to cussing women in ‘Ah! Tigre infedele’, the lights quickly jumped to bruised colours. I found the lighting somewhat harsh and clinical, not entirely inappropriate to this interpretation of the piece.
The band got off to a sluggish start in the overture, but picked up for the fugue, whilst the audience watched Amastris receive a letter, presumably telling her about Xerxes’ wandering eye, and then pack her bags to confront him. Despite a couple of intonation moments, the musicians played the reduced score well, the oboes replacing trumpets in the martial chorus of Act 1.
Humour was not lacking in the production, though I feel it was entirely coincidentally amusing that “Ombra mai fu” was sung a couple of metres away from the shade of the tree provided. The tree itself was moved around the set throughout, it being a representation of ‘a single sheet of paper, cut from the last tree on the planet’, according to the director’s note. The concern for the environment figured in Hampstead Garden Opera’s Calisto so there was an interesting if subconscious link to Cavalli.
The hymn to the tree was beautifully and evenly sung by male soprano Paul Bork. With his boyish looks, he well portrayed the spoilt antics of a dictator, with no morals or concept of the impact he has on others or their needs and feelings. Throughout he displayed control of the upper register, never bordering on screeching, as other male soprani sometimes can. There were clear notes at the top of his range in “Di tacere e di schernirmi” and his final vengeful aria “Crude furie degli orridi abissi’, was impressively and excitingly pulled off. He possesses a light voice but a pleasant chest sound when required.
Arsamenes, sung by Oskar McCarthy was very much an opposite to Xerxes to the point of looking quite stiff and uncertain of action. Vocally, he brought a very different interpretation of this travesti role as he’s a bass, the role having been transposed for the lower voice. I would have liked to compare this performance with the other cast for this production, which has indeed a mezzo-soprano in the role. His entry with James Schouten’s Elviro lacked real spark but he confidently produced the held notes in his opening aria. His confrontation with Xerxes as he admits he still wants Romilda showed more grit as he pushed the capricious ruler to the floor. There were moments of strain at the top of his range when singing piano but rapid passages were well executed with pleasing dexterity.
Romilda, sung by Madeleine Holmes, and Sophie Pullen as Atalanta, played well against each other; Romilda very much a confident spunky heroine and Atalanta the dowdy sister, almost a homage to Deirdre Barlow (apologies to non-Brit readers, you may need to Wikipedia that reference!). Holmes was equally confident and secure technically, though “Che cede al furore di stelle rubelle’ pushed her to her limits.
Playing the mischievous sister, Pullen made a dramatic change from spinster to temptress between the two parts of the performance and was amusingly dissembling as a character, finally being allowed to hook up with Elviro. A slightly darker hued voice than Holmes, the contrast worked well and was charmingly flirtatious in “Un cenno leggiadretto” and coquettish in “Dirà che non m’amo”
As the abandoned Amastris, Madeleine Sexton brought a restrained and logical presence, letting loose a fine performance in her rendition of “Saprà delle mia offese”. If some directors are inclined to highlighting the comic elements in Serse, Sexton’s performance consistently brought us back to the reality of the more serious side of the work, without sending up the pain she feels. Her final aria “Cagion son io del mio dolore” was heartbreakingly sung, Amastri’s lament being played against the covert marriage of Arsamene and Romilda.
Jumping between roles of Elviro and ‘il finto Ariodates’, Schoutens was a pleasure to listen to and watch on stage throughout, showing admirable professionalism, and humour, as he started choking on an apple in the final chorus. His resonant baritone was versatile enough to cope with leaping into a fine falsetto when disguised as a flower seller in ‘Ah, chi voler fiora de bella giardina’. Though the idea of Elviro pretending to be Romilda’s father pushed credibility to the limit, Schoutens was engaging and made the audience sit up and listen in admiration to his performance.
In these straitened times, one can only hope that more opportunities can be offered to young singers by groups such as Hampstead Garden Opera to extend their grasp of repertoire and benefit a grateful audience with performances as imaginative and enjoyable as this one.