Review: Handel, Xerxes, English Touring Opera, Snape, November 13

Handel’s operas are relatively recent arrivals to the general repertoire but one number from Xerxes – immediately following the overture - is almost as well known as a certain chorus. Sure enough, there were murmurs of surprised pleasure as the orchestra took their measured steps through the composer’s Largo (actually Larghetto).

Great art has the internal strength and integrity in the way it addresses universal and timeless themes to allow any number of interpretations. Director James Conway chose to set the production in an RAF base at the time of the Battle of Britain and in a typically intelligent and thought-provoking programme note he noted the parallels of the opera’s main themes –war and love, including a king in love with a ‘commoner’- with the Britain of the 1930’s and of today.

All very well but does it work? In my view, unhesitatingly yes. The scene was immediately set by wartime aeroplanes but there was no sense of dislocation as the excellent Old Street Band introduced music from a much earlier era.

The singing and characterisation were generally excellent. Julia Riley in the title role was clear, bright and possessed of good diction. Countertenor Clint van der Linde, generously Brylcreamed, was well in control and Laura Mitchell was outstanding as Romilda. Not only was she impeccable vocally but her strength of character shone through and she genuinely commanded the stage. Paula Sides gave a strong identity and plenty of vocal colour to the part of Atlanta and both Andrew Slater as the scientific boffin and Nicholas Merryweather, supposedly a servant but more a black marketeer, made the most of their roles. Rachael Lloyd as Amastris occasionally lacked impetus but at other times came into her own. Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny was occasionally over-theatrical but drew fine performances all round.

Handel operas can sometimes outstay their welcome but this one, ahem, just flew by.

Gareth Jones