James Conway’s production of Xerxes for English Touring Opera originally appeared in 2011 and now enjoys its first revival. It presents a highly accessible take on the story by setting it on an RAF base during the Second World War, with every person and position finding a neat equivalent within the new setting. Xerxes remains as a King, but Arsamenes becomes a pilot, Romilda a nurse, and Elviro a black marketer. Most importantly, Ariodates is now an inventor of the Spitfire that Xerxes is hoping will turn around his fortunes in the campaign.
The hierarchies are played out well precisely because the relative statuses of the characters remain intact. By the same token, the staging also misses a trick because the updating does not really shed any new light on the story or themes. When West Green House Opera set Così fan tutte during the Second World War last July, it played on the fact that this was a period in which women would have found a greater degree of independence. Thus the setting provided a specific explanation for why the sisters were so inclined to follow their own needs and desires. Here, it is harder to see how the altered setting has introduced any new slants on the characters, rather than simply provided equivalents to the originals. It might be argued that Ariodates has earned his favour through brains rather than, for example, valour, but this is really as far as it goes.
Nevertheless, ensuring suitable equivalents means that we never experience less than an enjoyable staging, and it does prove extremely adept at telling the story in a clear and straight forward manner. Sarah Bacon’s set at the start features a corrugated iron infirmary on the airfield, the tail end of a Spitfire (so Xerxes actually sings ‘Ombra mai fu’ to a plane!) and a windsock. The front curtain features silhouettes of fighter planes while the backdrop, with its series of circles, hints at the view from a cockpit. The objects that grace the stage vary throughout the opera, but they remain plentiful enough to support the performances, yet never so abundant as to distract from them. For example, in Act I the windsock rises and falls in line with the emotional, and sexual, temperature of the moment. Similarly, Arsamenes instructs Elviro to take his letter to Romilda while cleaning the toilets as this is his punishment from Xerxes for refusing to be his messenger. In Act III Xerxes sings ‘Crude furie degli orridi abissi’ while angrily tossing around a prototype for (it appears) a bouncing bomb, as Ariodates rushes about trying to ensure its safety.
Overall, however, it is the principals’ performances that convey the points and emotions. Each individual does so with a host of subtle gestures, although they are also given things to do to help bring these out. For example, the end of Act I sees Romilda and Atalanta getting ready for bed, with the ferocity with which each brushes the other’s hair revealing much about their feelings for their sister at that moment. There is the odd piece of dancing and jiving but this is never overdone and what there is, as much as anything else, serves to accentuate the music’s rhythms well. Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway’s video designs are also effective so on the backdrop we might see a pilot’s eye view as if he were flying through the air, or planes literally dancing as they fly backwards as well as forwards.
This version comes in at well below three hours (including interval), largely by cutting the chorus. The performance is in English, utilising Nicholas Hytner’s translation, and screens at the side guide us around the scenes while offering some witty comments in the process. They do not offer us full surtitles but this is not a problem as enunciation is excellent. Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny elicits an exemplary combination of balance and charge from The Old Street Band, and drives the drama forward at a gripping pace. He seldom offers a moment’s pause for applause after arias, which is a shame in the sense that so many of the performances are thoroughly deserving of it, but good from the point of view of maintaining momentum.
The cast is splendid, and Julia Riley, reprising her role of Xerxes from 2011, is excellent as she shapes her mezzo-soprano to reveal a beautiful, full and impeccably controlled voice. Laura Mitchell produces an exquisite soaring sound as Romilda, as does Galina Averina as her sister Atalanta. Clint van der Linde as Arsamenes is possessed of a countertenor whose lightness never undermines its tonal quality, Carolyn Dobbin produces a beautifully vibrant sound as Amastris, while Peter Brathwaite and Andrew Slater are equally effective as Elviro and Ariodates respectively.
English Touring Opera will perform La Calisto at the Hackney Empire on 14 October, and Ulysses’ Homecoming on 15 October. Following this all three productions, along with the St John Passion, will continue to tour the country. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.