Our opening scene in Nicholas Hytner and ENO’s revival of Xerxes is a green park. No! It’s a garden depicting a version of Vauxhall Pleasure Garden, not Persia: the land Xerxes reigned over during his kingship. It is the place the opera is loosely based on. In the background a gloomy desert of the Persian capital Persepolis lies and according to John Dryen’s poetic ode Alexander the Great had burnt down after being inspired by his musician Timotheus whose statue is present throughout the opera.
Revival director Michael Walling explains that Alexander the Great ‘raised the palace of Xerxes to the ground. Here, in this pleasure garden there is a seed of its own destruction’ and thus, a spell of darkness that subtly prevails in the opera through lyric mezzo-soprano Alice Coote who sings as our King.
The creative and alluring staging coupled with Handel’s compelling music and chirpy baroque instruments make the production something to marvel at, yet this was a short lived fad, which lacked in producing a more engaging performance.
At the premier of Serse (or Xerxes as it is called in English) in London 1738, it was said to be Handel’s worst failure. Having offended noble audiences, it only ran five times in its first run for various reasons including indifferently sung voices but mainly the confusion of its opera seria genre, which Handel mixed with comedy. Nonetheless the golden opening aria ‘Under thy shade’ is considered as Handel’s ‘Largo’ and one of his best melodies to this day. This was beautifully mastered by Coote as she sang with vulnerability, patience and boldness that didn’t undermine Xerxes royal stature.
The opera has an interesting plot focusing on unrequited love experienced by numerous characters. There’s Xerxes love for Ariodates’ (Neal Davies) daughter Romilda, sung by first-rate soprano Sarah Tynan for her role as Manon at the Welsh National Opera. Also, Amastris’ love (Catherine Young) for her fiancéXerxes and Atalanta’s, Romilda’s sister, love (Rhian Lois) for Arsamenes as Xerxes brother (Andrew Watts.) And not forgetting the comedia d’el arte go-between Elviro sung by cross dresser baritone Adrian Powter.
Watts sung Arsamenes as a counter tenor, which as beguiling as he sung was not always consistent which was a similar situation for Young who suffered from singing unclearly and, at times, wasn’t loud enough. Nonetheless they, and Romilda, sung the most heart wrenching arias, which made them loyal to their characters and most pitied by the audience.
Tynan’s lustrous voice is touching and so is her confidence to bounce around the stage depicting every human emotion possible whilst Lois bought life and smiles through Atlanta’s sassiness and girly innuendos. Coote’s version of Xerxes is strong and regal from the start and shows a king who cannot fathom not getting what he wants; but by the end of the opera we see an emotionally immature Xerxes, which, naturally, we learn to empathise with simply because it is sung by a respected and talented mezzo. Coote received calls of ‘brava’ after her arias, which, although annoying, were truly deserved.
I had preconceptions that the opera would be better than I had experienced it. The luscious baroque music of Handel undoubtedly grabbed me; yet this production, despite being its fifth revival, was an utter let down.
I felt, there was very little going on the under-used stage with its singers and actors who moved slowly, yet graciously, across the stage. There was an absence of warmth despite how jubilantly the ENO orchestra played or how passionate Michael Hofstetter’s conducting was. The pastoral set and triumphantly royal tones of the opera left me unmoved despite how much heat the theatre lights emitted on stage.
The intriguing props: a hedge cut sphinx, royal statues, vibrantly painted trees on the walls, sumptuous early 18th century costume designs and other superficial fixtures couldn’t compensate for such a stale stage. When the opera had reached its second interval, which ironically had the funniest jokes, the opera’s ability to engage was waning and lost audience’s attention and by this point some people had already left the auditorium.
The vocal dexterity of its chorus and lead singers on the other hand were undeniably evident in an opera, which almost lasted for four hours with worthy applause for tender arias sung with authenticity and foreboding puppy eyes. Yet, the opera’s length could also explain why some singers, particularly Watts and Young, couldn’t keep up with the challenges of their vocally high-ranging roles.
I left the ENO frustrated. I wanted to enjoy a production that would bring life to Handel’s bedazzling Serse yet I spent more time testing my endurance more than I could imagine.
Last production is tomorrow. Click here for more details.