Review: Xerxes, Hackney Empire

Sometimes it’s best to keep things simple. Xerxes, an opera by Handel no less, has enjoyed some notable stagings in the past thirty years or so, not least Nick Hytner’s 1985 ENO production, which took the little known work and updated it to a modern palate. His version has since been revived numerous times, not least two years ago at the Coliseum, and it’s his translation the English Touring Opera and Director James Conway used for their one-off show at the Hackney Empire, itself a revival of their own 2011 production. A smart, witty take on the genre, it’s no wonder we keep seeing it.

Hytner’s text updates us from 480 BC Persia to 1940’s Britain, with Ariodate (Andrew Slater) designing the Spitfire to help King Xerxes (Julia Riley) with his campaign. The setting doesn’t really feature into the main story though because it’s business as usual – everyone loves everyone. Xerxes wants Ariodate’s daughter Romilda (Laura Mitchell) as his Bride, but she is in love with his brother Arsamenes (Clint Van Der Linde), which he reciprocates. Romilda’s sister Atalanta (Galina Averina) also loves Armaments and Xerxes’ own betrothed, Princess Amastris (Carolyn Dobbin) arrives at the airfield… and put-upon servant Elviro (Peter Braithwaite) just wants to sleep.

It’s some excellent work from Hytner, balancing the real life romance with the grandiose genre. Subtle libretto is not often found within opera, but Hytner’s use of it here allows us insight into characters we would usually take for granted, such as Atalanta’s response to being asked if she really loves Arsamentes – “No, but I feel I will.” The story and pacing are nicely zippy, the WWII background doesn’t detract from proceedings, only being used to embellish some theatrical ideas like Xerxes’ climax of anger overlaid with airstrike footage. It also manages to provide a lot of much needed humour present within the text as well as the performances. The only place the story falls is with its final wrap-up, where a big decision from Xerxes doesn’t feel earned, meaning we sort of peeter out instead of ending on a grand hurrah.

Every performance is on point – Riley a swaggering, cocksure King, Van Der Linde almost deliberately a subversion of the leading man, he’s much more petulant, and Mitchell able to find that balance between allowing her character to grieve, and raise eyebrows at the actions of her male peers. The supporting cast are all great, with particular praise to Braithwaite, who steals every scene he’s in by just being hilarious. All show excellent use of restraint in their vocals, not so you’re being pushed to listen, but enough that there’s an air of naturalism to the lyrical score. Whilst we’re here, boy could Handel write some music. We’re not just in his ‘harpsichord because we’re Baroque now’ period, there’s a lovely air of smooth, silky strings for us to fall back on, and he can really raise us from our seats when he wants to. Conway’s direction is completely effortless and a delight. Such wonderful, simple use of framing onstage, meaning the picture also tells a story – that’s a confident, gentle touch if I ever saw one. He doesn’t push for laughs too much, just allowing the humour to evolve from the situation and characters, and though we could argue there is little to be excited by in the set, a deft use of military grey colouring elsewhere is enough to keep us engaged.

It’s a shame Xerxes was only here for one night, but I’m sure this production will return, it deserves to. As far as opera goes, it’s as funny and easy-going a one as you’re likely to see. A pitch-perfect cast, beautiful direction and a score that soars – ETO proves once again they can play with the big boys.

Xerxes played the Hackney Empire for one night on 8th October. For more information on its tour, visit the English Touring Opera website.

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith