BWW Review: XERXES, Hackney Empire, 8 October 2016

A Spitfire's shadow is cast over an airfield much as the shadow of war is cast over the land. Men in uniform, the fliers of the RAF who dueled in the air to save Britain in the battle that bore the nation's name, mill about on base, rare amongst military men in having access to home comforts (well, homely comforts) and (whisper it) women, with both locals and nurses for company during the long hours on the ground. Few servicemen envied the men in the air while they were dodging the ack-ack on missions, but few did not when they were on terra firma, surrounded by opportunities unavailable to those in the field or at sea.

Those dangerous days are the setting for English Touring Opera's revival of its 2011 adaptation of Xerxes, Handel's 1738 opera of jealousy, misunderstandings and courtly intrigue. Newly crowned King Xerxes (a squadron leader in this version) falls for the beautiful commoner, Romilda, but she loves his brother, the dashing and brave Arsamenes and Xerxes is already betrothed to Princess Amastris, who is happy to go undercover to snare her man. Throw in a servant or two who don't always carry out orders to the letter and Romilda's younger sister, Atalanta, who has schemes of her own, and the course of true love hits plenty of turbulence before everyone ends up with their feet firmly back on earth, safe and sound.

As we have come to expect from this company, relatively low resources still produce a tremendous spectacle. Wheeling the back end of a spitfire onto the stage doesn't sound like much, but, convincingly rendered by designer, Sarah Bacon, it lends a punch of verisimilitude to the 200 years' time displacement that puts to bed any accusation of gimmickry - and I heard a few such comments before the curtain went up.

The singing varies from splendid to astonishing. This production uses Nicholas Hytner's English translation of the libretto but, though billed in the programme as surtitled, it was disappointing to see the screens used solely to introduce scenes and not to assist those, like me and I suspect many others, whose knowledge of the plot is limited and whose hearing is not as sharp as it was 30 years ago. Sorting out seven characters, four of whose names begin with an A, is no easy task if you're not catching every word, even if the voices are lovely!

Amongst the splendid singers, Corolyn Dobbin excels as Amastris, a bit boozy at times, but determined to land her man. Peter Brathwaite is good too, having plenty of fun as disguised as a stocking-shilling spiv while working undercover for Arsamenes. Laura Mitchell is sexy and vulnerable as Romilda, a pawn in the raging fraternal jealousy, who stands by her love.

Astonishing is the word for Clint Van Der Linde, whose soaring countertenor (to my uneducated ear, it sounded akin to a rich falsetto) had me wondering if Arsamenes was - like Julia Riley's Xerxes - a "trouser role", but this was clearly a male voice, with plenty of depth to complement its high register. It was an extraordinary sound and shown off to breathtaking effect in his Act Two and Act Three arias. It had me, and plenty of opera regulars too, swooning with delight.

Part of ETO's Autumn Venetian season, the (as ever) marvellous accompanying programme does a great job in locating the work within the history of opera, indeed the history of theatre. Just seven performers, supported by Jonathan Peter Kenny's wonderful orchestra, carry over two hours of intense drama, packed with short and sweet arias but, using back projections from time to time, not short of the quality of epic when needed. Just give us a hand with some more words on the screens please!

Xerxes is part of the English Touring Opera's Autumn Season at the Hackney Empire and on tour.

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From This Author Gary Naylor