Seen&Heard Editor: Marc Bridle                              Founder Len Mullenger:

MusicWeb Internet
 powered by FreeFind 

Error processing SSI file

S & H Opera Review

Handel, ‘Xerxes’ English National Opera, London Coliseum, Thursday November 7th 2002. (ME)


In the ‘Good Old Days’ at ENO, the angular figure of Peter Jonas was a regular sight at ‘front of curtain’ time, usually making pleas for money in various guises: nowadays, a similarly gaunt figure in the person of Paul Daniel appears before us, sometimes to tell us where the loos are, sometimes to make a graceful connection, as he did last night, between the ‘unbuttoned elegance’ of the statue of Handel which graces the stage for this production, and the rather rumpled state in which the Coliseum is to be found at present. This is all rather cosy, reminding us that we, too, have a part in what’s going on at this house, and making us feel that we are quite noble to be supporting the company by our very presence. It can also sound like an apology, but none was needed for what must surely be one of the most characteristic of all ENO productions.

It is always hard for a new cast to live up to a superlative original, and the first singers in this ‘Xerxes’ would be an impossible group to equal, given that they included Ann Murray, Christopher Robson, Jean Rigby and Lesley Garrett (yes, she really was a first class Atalanta) but last night’s young cast gave a performance which may have lacked a little in subtle dramatic touches but compensated for this with some genuinely lovely singing. Sarah Connolly is very familiar to ENO audiences, and whilst she lacks Ann Murray’s feisty stage presence and opulence of timbre, she created a highly individual, noble King, full of overweening pride and impulsive vulnerability. Her singing was beautiful throughout, beginning with a very gentle ‘Under Thy Shade’ and including some exquisite phrasing in ‘When I See Her’ as well as confidently articulated florid passages in ‘Rise, Ye Furies.’

Robin Blaze has a most cultivated and elegant voice as well as a handsome stage presence, but he is at present a little diffident in the role of Arsamenes; though his singing is lovely, especially in the slower pieces, he seems to need a little more forcefulness in his phrasing and enunciation as well as his characterization. He is clearly someone who will grow into his part, and the same is true of Mary Nelson, whose assumption of Atalanta is lively and credible but as yet in need of sharper focus: she has a very neat, bright soprano, looks delectable in her costumes and will surely shine once she is well into her stride.

Anna Burford had the especially difficult task of following in Jean Rigby’s footsteps; I doubt if anyone who attended the first performances of this production will ever forget the cello-like beauty of Rigby’s tone in ‘I am the cause of mine own ruin’ or indeed the moving quality of her recitatives. However, Ms Burford is a vivid actress, and she made Amastris entirely credible as well as singing with poise and forthright projection – hers is clearly a name to watch.

The comic bass parts were genially taken by Mark Richardson and Iain Paterson, both singing with gusto and projecting their characters convincingly. The only real disappointment of the evening was Rebecca Evans, who seems to garner rave reviews wherever she goes, but whose singing of Romilda was rather cloudy in terms of diction and cool in characterization; the voice and person are both undeniably lovely but I was less impressed than I had expected to be; perhaps it was a case of first-night nerves.

The wonderful Nicholas Hytner production has been lovingly revived by Michael Walling, with those Vauxhall Gardens, grey – robed supernumeraries, massive exhibits and exquisite lighting tableaux (originally by Paul Pyant, revived by Nick Moran) as evocative as ever, but I felt that some of the confrontations between characters, especially the King and his brother, could use a little sharpening up. Harry Bicket, always reliable as a Handel conductor, directed a fast – paced, delicately shaded reading of the score, giving the singers plenty of room to breathe and shaping the continuo quite beautifully. A classic ENO evening, and it was a shame that the house was not absolutely full; one hopes that audiences will get bigger as the run goes on, since this is an opera which should be seen and heard in such committed and vibrant performances as we experienced last night.


Melanie Eskenazi

Seen&Heard is part of MusicWeb Webmaster: Len Mullenger

Return to: Seen&Heard Index

Error processing SSI file

Return to: Music on the Web