In the opening scene of Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) we witness the King of Persia (Xerxes) singing a love song to a plane tree (“Ombra Mai Fu”). As the narrative of this opera unfolds – a tale of love triangles, frustrated desire, disguise and general chicanery – we begin to wonder whether Xerxes should have stuck with loving the tree, rather than anyone else, for trees tend to be rather simpler to deal with.
In fact, the plot of Xerxes is fairly straightforward, and in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production, first seen in 1985 and now in its sixth revival, it becomes incidental to the charming setting, and witty and delightful progression of the narrative. An entertaining cast of characters inhabit a setting which recalls Vauxhall Pleasure Garden and Versailles (complete with modern-day red cordons), with a nod to Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in the costumes of the servants/chorus and a glimpse of ancient Persia in the form of a giant statue of a winged lion (which one might view in the British Museum) and the tiny ancient city at the rear of the set.
The all-British cast gel brilliantly, all winks and nods and cheeky asides, and Xerxes, sung by Alice Coote (making her role debut) is thigh-slappingly wonderful, at once swaggering principal boy and deluded, love-lorn King, the full weight of emotion given rein in her rich enunciation of words like “Desire”. Romilda, beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan, is coquettish and proud, while Atalanta (Rhian Lois) is downright louche, particularly in Act 1. There are also some delightful comic cameos from Arsamenes (sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts) and his servant Elivro, whose disguise as a “mockney” flower seller (complete with floral frock) gets all the laughs in Act 2.
The production combines a cool rococo elegance with wit and genuine humour (the welcoming home of the old soldiers from battle, taking tea en plein air, and the hedge-trimming), while the music is energetically directed by Michael Hofstetter and crisply articulated by the orchestra. All in all, this was a rollicking evening, delightfully piquant, charming and above all entertaining. It’s a long night (three acts in three-and-a-half hours) but with the quality and pleasure of this production and the commitment and obvious enjoyment of the cast the narrative moves on apace. Highly recommended.
Xerxes continues at ENO, London Coliseum until 3 October