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A green thought

11/07/2002 -  and 9, 14, 16, 19, 22, 27, 30 November
George Frideric Handel: Xerxes
Sarah Connolly (Xerxes), Robin Blaze (Arsamenes), Anna Burford (Amastris), Mark Richardson (Ariodates), Rebecca Evans (Romilda), Mary Nelson (Atalanta), Iain Paterson (Elviro)

ENO chorus and orchestra

Harry Bicket (conductor), Michael Walling (revival director)

Nicholas Hynter's production of Handel's Xerxes, first done in 1985 for the tercentenary of the composer's birth, was a revelation at the time. Hynter applied the RSC's then house method for rhetorical drama to Handel's text and music and delivered similar bright-and-breezy results, with just enough darkness and emotional depth for the opera's presumed classic status. It apparently hadn't occurred to many people before that Xerxes was a drama. Certainly Malgloire's 1979 recording shows no sign that he thought it was about anything at all. Hynter, on the other hand, blessed with superb performers and probably extensive rehearsal time, might have made Xerxes seem better than it is. David Fielding's design, evoking Vauxhall Gardens at the height of its exoticism, certainly still looks great, and the oriental, vegetable or just plain bizarre exhibits are entertaining in themselves, providing settings that hint both at Handel's audience at play and at ancient Persia. But the constantly moving settings and animated business paradoxically provide a sense of coherence that is often missing between the choppy, ballad-opera style scenes. Xerxes has some beautiful music, but it needs a lot of work to make it into a masterpiece.

The ENO seems to be treating this as a bread-and-butter production now, like Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto, rolled out to fill out the season at comparatively little cost. (It is alarming to think that this season is the one whose profligacy caused Nicholas Payne's departure.) The previous revival, in 1998, had a theatrically savvy cast that was almost as good as the wonderful 1985 one, while this time, apart from a magisterial Sarah Connolly in the title role and Mark Richardson in the smallish role of Ariodates, the singers were quite young and not particularly thoroughly rehearsed.

There was some superb singing: Rebecca Evans, in a blond wig looking a bit like Ruth Ann Swenson, was actually a touch large of voice for Romilda's music, but the sound she made was lovely if static. Mary Nelson was a bit ladylike for Atalanta, her scheming sister, but vocally spot on. Anna Burford has a classic sock-full-of-custard contralto voice, perfect for Amastris, though her misery was monotone. Robin Blaze as Arsamenes sang gloriously. His voice is smallish and sounds completely unforced, his diction was impeccable and he is a performer full of natural charm though no particular theatricality. Iain Paterson hadn't quite got the hang of Elviro's inertia, a positive force in this production, which ought to make him an anti-Figaro, but his singing was also glorious. Connolly, though, stood out for theatrical energy and dramatic vocal style. This was perhaps inevitable when Xerxes pretty much has all the big da capo arias, but she is in a league of her own.

If the production, ably revived by Michael Walling, doesn't have its original dynamism, the music is still well served. Harry Bicket directed the ENO orchestra in a measured but definitely dramatic performance that always supported the singers.

H.E. Elsom



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