Since the premiere of Nicholas Hytner’s production in 1985, Xerxes has been enjoying overwhelming critical praise, winning the Oliver award for outstanding new production in 1985. The most recent performance at London Coliseum, which is its sixth revival, did not disappoint. It is an energetic, at times frivolous, at times awe-inspiring production that is primarily made so through the spectacular talent of the cast and the stunning set design. Veering away from the more regal staging of other operas in popular repertoire, Hytner’s production (revived by Michael Walling), manages to inject Handel’s opera with vivacious, youthful energy that marks it as being a robust player in the current opera climate.
The surreal elements to the set design are subtle enough to allow the action to remain in the forefront and magnificent enough to spill out from the stage and engulf the entire room. Perhaps in danger of clashing with the luxurious interior of the Coliseum, with its grand Caesar busts and rich crimson interior, the fresh, vibrant set, designed by David Fielding, instead strikes a fine balance that allows the work to appear distinct. A particular scene with the back wall removed and an illustrious sky adorning the furthest reach of the stage with a desert-like undertow was particularly arresting, especially when combined with the four columns that lined the middle segment of the stage. In accordance with this fantastical scenery, the chorus are dressed in beautiful metallic tones from head to toe, or some more eerily, have their faces painted white matched with all black costumes. It is the design of the show that was the spectacle.
The farcical plot works harmoniously with the more bold set design to create cohesion; the chaotic series of events appear at home within the surreal backdrop. The tale of unrequited love, mischievous misdirection and empire expansion is handled with a lightness of touch that creates a distinguishable humanity that may have been lost under clumsier direction.
The cast rise to great heights in their solos and manage to inject the hyperactive script with a more grounded sense of drama. Alice Coote attacks Xerxes with swagger that does not go unmatched by her desired Romilda (Sarah Tynan), who is unwaveringly in love with Arsamenes (Andrew Watts), who is also pursued by Romilda’s sister Atalanta (Rhian Lois). Thankfully, the talented cast has the chaotic web of lust, ambition and betrayal masterfully under control. Adrian Powter (Arsamenes servant, Elviro) is a comedic highlight of the show.
Xerxes is a fine demonstration of balance: neither too farcical, nor too serious. The show was as enjoyable as it was impressive. The vibrant set design did not conceal the sheer talent and charm of the cast; the spectacular backdrops aided the mammoth solos of the leads. To the credit of Nicholas Hytner and Michael Walling, the production was seamless.
Xerxes is playing at the London Coliseum until 3 October. For further information and to buy tickets see the English National Opera website. Photo by Mike Hoban.