English National Opera @ Coliseum, London 7, 9, 14, 16, 19, 22, 27, 30 November 2002
When this production of Handel's Xerxes opened in 1985, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the composer's birth, it stunned all who saw it and won numerous awards.
The genius of Nicholas Hytner, soon to take over at the National Theatre, created an evening of wit and delight, combined with the visual treat of stunning designs by David Fielding.
Seventeen years later it still looks pretty good, I'm pleased to report. The jokes (the deckchairs, the hedge trimmer, the self-destructing bust...) are still funny even when you've seen them ten times before and those who haven't yet seen this production are in for a treat.
The story doesn't need to concern us too much and bears almost no relation to history: Xerxes, King of Persia, falls in love with Romilda, who in turn is in love with his brother Arsamenes... and Xerxes being a bit of a tyrant, all sorts of mayhem ensues before he sees the error of his ways and the true lovers are reunited.
Apart from any intricacies in the story this opera is a delight for fans of cross-dressing. Xerxes - originally a soprano castrato role - is sung by a mezzo-soprano (Sarah Connolly in splendid voice, and looking thoroughly in control of her kingdom). Arsamenes - originally a female soprano - is sung by a counter-tenor (Robin Blaze, a young man with an exquisite voice, whose acting improved markedly as the evening progressed). Amastris, a Princess jilted by Xerxes and not at all happy about it, is played by a mezzo-soprano (Anna Burford) with such a deep timbre that she seems a lot butcher than her errant suitor. The only standard male voices are Mark Richardson as Ariodates, Commander of Xerxes army and father to Romilda and Atalanta (of whom more in a moment), and Iain Paterson as Elviro, servant to Arsamenes, who provides a splendid comic turn.
The setting is Persia via Vauxhall Gardens circa 1738, the date of the first performance. The colours of the sets still thrill - the vibrant greens of the gardens (there's a lot of grass in this production) and the (literally) fabulous topiary, the terracotta of the rocky desert backdrop and the ruined pillars that drop from the heavens. The scene changes are so slick and clever that we are transported from location to location without delay or jolt, and the many and varied exhibits creating a 'chamber of rarities' for the 18th century cast to enjoy are a delight.
Romilda may be the heroine of the opera (and she is charmingly sung by Rebecca Evans) but the focus of all eyes tends to be on Atalanta, her sister, who is determined to steal Arsamenes from under Romilda's nose and isn't too fussy about her methods. There is a hard act to follow here. When the production was brand new Lesley Garrett made a stunning impression as the minx ('never knowingly upstaged', as the ENO chorus used to remark of her stage presence, and they were spot on). Mary Nelson makes a terrific attempt to erase that memory and doesn't do a bad job: she's vivacious and pretty, and her pure, accurate voice stands her in good stead. She's also touching when she sadly relates having been told to forget Arsamenes, but not how.
It's a long opera (a 7pm curtain, and almost three hours of music) and the pace in the first act was a little slow for my liking. However house conductor Harry Bicket picked it up in the second act and by the third, and the delicious argument duet for Romilda and Arsamenes (one of the best jokes of all) it was perfect.
There were sadly lots of empty seats for the first night - so you've no excuse for not booking a ticket right away.