The subject of our most recent ENO review, Anthony Minghella's Madame Butterfly is officially a smash hit — it is completely sold out (although, as ever, standing room and day tickets go on sale at 10 am, and there are always released tickets to be had if you're lucky). In addition, rumour has it that the production is heading for New York, presumably with better singers. All this despite the best efforts of certain newspaper critics, who proved me wrong in my belief that the expressive power of the production's puppets would be self-evident to any sensitive audience member. Well, what can we say but 'we're right and they're wrong'? That, and 'at least we know how to spell "bunraku"' (it's been fixed on the web version...)
In any case, the ENO's most recent offering has more in common with the Madame Butterfly than the latter's detractors might care to admit. Nicholas Hytner's production of Handel's Xerxes (better known by its Italian title Serse is twenty years old, and has been remounted periodically since 1985. And it is obvious why: like the Minghella Butterfly, the stage picture is at practically every single moment utterly breathtaking. The misguided critics who chided Minghella for his 'fetishistic volume of silk' on display could make exactly the same charge here, except in Xerxes most of silk is gray.
However, unlike Butterfly, where all the lush sets and over-the-top costumes directly served the drama, in the case of Xerxes we're not totally sure what all the beautiful scenery actually was supposed to mean. The plot of Xerxes is ostensibly set in medieval Persia (although staging in Handel's time was unconcerned with 'authenticity' of sets and costumes). Hytner places the action in an abstract space inspired by images of the eighteenth-century Vauxhall Gardens, which, in the words of David Coke in the program book, was a
meeting point of an amorphous group of artists, craftsmen, writers, actors, and others whose ideas and work all contributed to an anarchic, destructive, and unbalanced movement in all the arts, almost an early form of Dada; they were intent on the destruction of the old dogmas and taboos, of stylization and intellectualism, and on bringing in new freedom and tolerance.
Anarchy in Vauxhall... so we're talking about Duckie, then?
Maybe we're just dense, but it wasn't clear to us exactly why Xerxes inhabited this landscape. It was less clear why the chorus were all dressed as clones of G.F. Handel himself, or why the servants were bald and painted white. It was all really gorgeous to look at, though. Months ago, we expressed the concern that stagings of this opera tend to be either too funny or not funny enough. This production was maybe both, maybe neither. Maybe just confusing.
And if we can't really figure out a way to talk about the design, the performances likewise leave us a little stumped. Because everything on stage was good. Quite good. Just fine. But the most excited we actually got during the whole evening is when we discovered a glaring factual error in a program book essay. In the words of a friend of ours, 'pretty good is the hardest thing to talk about.'
In the title role, Katrina Karnéus displayed an obviously terrific voice, but we couldn't shake the feeling that we would enjoy listening to her much more in a different opera — her penetrating timbre and very, very fast vibrato would serve more emotionally intense repertory perfectly, but became exhausting in Xerxes' long arias, in which sheer beauty of tone is paramount.
As Arsamenes, Lawrence Zazzo managed to get over his purported anxieties about singing in English, and gave an impressive performance, with some satisfying chesty singing now and then. Zazzo has been quickening some pulses recently, but, in his flowing shoulder-length wig, he kind of looked like a muppet to us.
Other good performances came from Janis Kelly, a soprano with a rich high register, and Graeme Denby, a bass who gets the evening's biggest laughs. But, despite all the good singing on stage, nothing really amazed us with its power or beauty of virtuosity. The ornamentation and improvisations were safe and tame. The tempos were all 'just right.'
Don't get us wrong: we love Handel opera. Some of the most exciting theatrical moments we've ever experienced have happened during Handel opera. But Saturday night, particularly during the longeurs of act 2, we were glancing at our watch. Luckily, whenever that happened, we could be reasonably sure that some gorgeous piece of set dressing was about to be wheeled onto the stage.
Xerxes has five more performances between now and December 15. In the last two performance, Zazzo is replaced by the more famous and more mature countertenor Robin Blaze. Order tickets online here.