Ever wanted to be an eighteenth century aristocrat, taking a stroll in the pleasure gardens, marvelling at the latest discovery to reach Britain from another continent, or whiling away an afternoon at the opera knowing that you don’t have to get up for work the next day?
If so, a trip to the London Coliseum could come closer to fulfilling that dream than anything else. The opera in question is Handel’s Xerxes of 1738, and Nicholas Hytner’s 1985 production helped to revive interest in the composer’s dramatic works, and started the process whereby English National Opera earned its reputation as the ‘House of Handel’.
The plot concerns a love pentangle in which King Xerxes of Persia has spurned his betrothed, Amastris, and is pursuing Romilda. She in turn, however, loves Xerxes’ brother, Arsamenes, but so too does her sister, Atalanta! Following a web of intrigue and deceit, alongside cross-dressing and one honest mistake, everything works out well for everyone (or nearly everyone) in the end.
Hytner’s production sets the piece not in the time of King Xerxes (5th century BC) but in Handel’s own, and it works because there are enough similarities between the hierarchies of ancient Persia and Georgian Britain to maintain the same power relationships. In addition, although this is not a period performance, by placing all the action in a pleasure garden there is a sense in which we are enjoying the opera as someone in Handel’s day might have done. One aria is delivered as a performance within a performance, with the well-to-do sitting on deckchairs to witness the entertainment. This is not only what people would have done on a sunny day, but we as the audience grow to feel like an extension of those whom we see on stage.
There are a host of insightful and humorous touches, such as Romilda and Atalanta scrambling between rows of genteel ladies as they sing of their rivalry. The latter look immensely put out at being forced from their seats, but as befitting the expectations of the day they silently chunter rather than break decorum.
The opera is conducted brilliantly by Michael Hofstetter while Alice Coote, a world class mezzo-soprano, demonstrates excellent tone, phrasing and enunciation as Xerxes. Coote largely adopts the manners of a man who assumes Romilda will respond to his advances by virtue of his position, yet her portrayal also finds room to suggest that Xerxes genuinely loves her when he fears the possibility she will not be his. There is, however, no weak link in this superb cast with particular accolades also going to Rhian Lois as a feisty Atalanta, and Andrew Watts who as Arsamenes reveals a stylish counter-tenor voice.
Until 3 October (six performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with a start time of 19.00. For tickets (£12-£115) visit the English National Opera website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the ENO press team.