Meta Handel – Xerxes (ENO, 26 September 2014)

It had to be done: an opera that mocks the seria in opera seria. Though a melodrama in tone, it’s the comedy (of errors) that drives the action. ENO is still running this 1985 Xerxes production, which is – for once – a good thing, because it matches the oddball libretto brilliantly1.

  • Xerxes: Alice Coote 
  • Arsamenes: Andrew Watts
  • Romilda: Sarah Tynan
  • Atalanta: Rhian Lois
  • Amastris: Catherine Young
  • Elviro: Adrian Powter
  • Ariodates: Neal Davies

Conductor: Michael Hofstetter | ENO Choir and Orchestra (I assume, it’s not credited on the site)

Handel, who until 1738 had made a career out of being creative within the very tight confines of opera seria, uses this barely serious libretto to play with its cliches. Likewise, Hytner mounted a faux-traditional production complete with desert in the background and historical artifacts, all used in quotation marks. The characters are humanised – by love – and behave in less than heroic manner, so their arias are also altered, directly subverting opera seria conventions. Chief among them is Xerxes own “bravura” aria If you would worship the man who has spurned you…, where he starts by chiding Romilda in furious glory only to admit in the B section that he can’t be angry with her.

Revival director Michael Walling thinks there is real darkness behind the silly comedy. If there is, it’s well hidden. I think the point of Xerxes is precisely to make fun of all those – by 1738 – old fashioned classical ideals, like steadfast love in the face of danger (Romilda boasts much during the opera but chickens out when faced with Xerxes’ ultimatum), powerful military commanders (Ariodates might be winning battles but he is rather thick), autocratic rulers (Romilda contradicts Xerxes’ orders and he abides, Handel boldly brings in the choir to sing such soaring praises to Xerxes as to feel ridiculous), wise side-kicks (Elviro is a properly buffo bass, cowardly and given to lushness) and somewhat lame “heroes”2 like the whinging Arsamenes, who should be saving the damsel in distress but is mostly faffing about. So there’s no opera seria cliche left behind, the person who actually saves Romilda is her rival to Xerxes’ affections, Amastris, disguised as a soldier.

This crop of singers does an excellent job at keeping the proceedings moving, both vocally and dramatically. Alice Coote in the title role does the self-absorbed amourous buffon hilariously. I especially enjoyed her interaction with Sarah Tynan’s Romilda during Xerxes’ above mentioned aria as well as the delivery of Crude furie/Rising furies from baleful abysses, when Xerxes finally gets to throw down – and he does! The trick with the toppling statues never gets old and I for one couldn’t wait to see it live 😀 I secretly want a mezzo to get bold enough and kick one of them… Her soulful tone also supports Ombra mai fu beautifully. Speaking of which, this wedding music favourite is proof of Handel’s enduring subversiveness. Sarah Tynan as Romilda, although not a favourite voice, cuts a powerful presence throughout and I remember good interaction with the orchestra. Andrew Watts (who also made time for last week’s Griselda) as Arsamenes once again gets into it and projects with the best of them3, although his trills on l’otterò (from Sì, la voglio e l’otterò!) weren’t quite as exquisite as Hallenberg‘s 😉 Rhian Lois as the scheming Atalanta does a lovely and hilarious job with Dira che amor per me, one of the best moments in the opera, when Atalanta tells Xerxes that, although truly in love with her now, Arsamenes will deny it. I seem to remember a gorgeous trill on another occasion as well.

This Dira moment reminds me of the playful way in which Handel mixes singing with recit, several times reprising a line or two, or having characters sing dueting snipets. Very cool and once again, subversive to opera seria, although probably already common in Singspiel and people’s opera in England and Italy. Catherine Young is Amastris, Xerxes’ forgotten fiancee and the most typical opera seria character here, all dignified and heroic. But even she admits to loving Xerxes too much to harm him, though when disguised as a common soldier she boldly interrupts him whenever given the chance. As you do. Young has a warm (I know, I abuse this term but what can I do? It is warm) and dignified tone and a dashing figure that would no doubt fool opera seria characters – quite a bit more so than Adrian Powter’s (Elviro) flower girl. It was hilarious seeing them dupe each other with their “clever disguises”. Powter gets down with the camp, my favourite moment being when he shakes the Hellespont Bridge model until it breaks, in a mocking effort of Elviro’s to match the metaphorical storm brewing. You know how much I like a storm aria. Neal Davies as Ariodates is all right vocally and very funny dramatically, but you might remember from my Theodora post that I’m not entirely convinced by his bass’n’trills.

The orchestra sounded outstanding from my balcony perch and the tempi just right. All in all, a welcome revival performed with chutzpah.


  1. It’s worth listening to the ENO Xerxes pre-performance talk. It’s full of random Handel trivia, aside from interesting tidbits about this production which you might have not known (I have not). 
  2. In the great Handelian tradition of Ariodante himself. 
  3. Which I find quite amazing in a countertenor. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on September 27, 2014, in baroque, historical timeline, live performances and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Very much enjoyed reading this, as I saw the show last night – up in the balcony for the first half and was then invited to join a generous friend down in the stalls for the second half. I thought the production was great fun – entirely not what I was expecting from Handel, with much less pomp and bombast. Like you I thought Alice Coote was fantastic at conveying the character – and ooooh, weren’t the toppling statues fun? – but it seemed to me that sometimes the orchestra drowned out a lot of the singers’ lower notes. There were moments when Watts seemed a tad wobbly on the lower notes too, to my ears, although his top notes were splendid. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding the effect he was going for? Still trying to get my thoughts together – but very glad to see that you thought it was a good performance. Overall, lots of laughs and an introduction to Handel that’ll have me coming back for more.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it! I agree sometimes the low notes were drowned, I guess it happens for any number of reasons (generally speaking, it’s harder to project the lower notes and especially for countertenors with strong tops like Watts). Sometimes the singers don’t want to push their voices seeing as it’s almost 4 hours of music and two more shows to go, sometimes it’s the conductor who forgets it’s Handel and not Wagner 😉 I would say the orchestra was pretty loud for Handel. Was it the same then, in the stalls (drowned notes)?

      This is most certainly not the typical Handel opera, do expect the other ones to be MUCH more serious in tone (perhaps not so much Giulio Cesare, especially in the Glyndebourne production). The upshot with the other ones is this is not the best – IMO – as far as the quality of music.

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      • The effect of the drowned notes wasn’t so bad downstairs, but still noticeable. I don’t really know what they could have done to correct it though. It’s not like you can ask the orchestra to play more quietly! Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the more serious Handel operas at some point (may look for some good DVDs) – I have to confess that I have a bit of a weakness for noble suffering and high-flown sentiments, so I’ll probably get on just as well with those. 😉

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  1. Pingback: Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738) – The Idle Woman

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