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George Frederick Handel, Xerxes: soloists, English National Opera orchestra and chorus/Noel Davies, London Coliseum, 19.11.2005 (ED)



Xerxes:Katarina Karnéus (mezzo)

Arsamenes: Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)

Amastris: Lucy Schaufer (mezzo)

Romilda: Janis Kelly (soprano)

Ariodates: Neal Davies (bass)

Atalanta: Sarah Tynan (soprano)

Elviro: Graeme Danby (bass)



Conductor: Noel Davies

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Revival Director: Michael Walling

Designer: David Fielding

Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant

Translation :Nicholas Hytner




How time flies! It hardly seems like twenty years since I saw this production on its first outing with the original cast of Ann Murray, Lesley Garrett, Jean Rigby, Christopher Robson to name a few. For those wanting a trip down memory lane that cast can be found on
DVD, captured during the first revival in 1988.

Whilst some things survive best in the memory, others can bear often revival and revisiting – such as this production of Xerxes. As far back as 1785 Burney criticised the work, citing the “mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it”. To my mind it is these elements that Nicholas Hytner’s production best succeeds in bringing out through subtle touches to enliven what could otherwise be a longish evening. Hytner rightly takes his cue from Handel, whilst never overplaying his hand to detract from the wit that the music itself contains. It is a work that for many shoots its best bolt at the very start with the famous “Ombra mai fu” – in praise of the tree – which no doubt spurred on Hytner’s wish for an airy, green and lively production.

One of the curiosities of the score is that Handel borrowed heavily from two earlier settings of the plot, particularly that of Bononcini, but the results he achieved through this often sparkle for a time with a life of their own – even if they do not stick in the mind as readily as the larghetto. Noel Davies, conducting the edition of the score he edited with Sir Charles Mackerras, remained undeterred by this and kept pace and interest moving steadily throughout the evening with a lightness of touch.

A challenge for any company staging the work is to find seven equally matched soloists with sufficient vocal and acting abilities to bring the drama to life in all its aspects – commanding, heroic, passionate, vengeful, scheming, coy and witty. This maybe explains why Handel did not revive the work following its premiere.   This cast, to my ears, is almost as strong as the original – and they have the strength to bring their own insights and interpretations to the roles too.

In her role debut as Xerxes, Katarina Karnéus might not have all of Ann Murray’s steel tempered tone, making her outbursts strong yet less declaimed than they might be, but she did bring a suitable imperiousness to the role. Handel’s complex vocal writing and ornamentations flow with easy assuredness, and when combined with acting of subtlety, as here, the character shows many of its requisite aspects. Janis Kelly’s Romilda too was strongly portrayed though she was obviously more at ease in the romantic aspects of the role that the more outwardly protesting ones, when she is forced to fight Xerxes’ will. Vocally there were occasional moments of slight unevenness, but these could be taken as part of the anguished characterisation rather than overly detracting from the experience.  Sarah Tynan experienced no such issues as Atalanta to give yet another assured performance this season – indeed the contrast of her light soprano served to highlight Handel’s facility in blending vocal tones and weights at key moments. Her acting too projected a knowing intelligence behind the appearance of innocence that aptly embodied Atalanta’s scheming.

Lucy Schaufer’s Amastris, the disguised princess to whom Xerxes is betrothed on hand to observe the King’s dalliances with Romilda before finally revealing her true identity, played the part well to thwart her beloved’s plans. Neal Davies as Romilda’s father has the smallest of the roles, yet crucially seals the match between his daughter and the King’s brother Arsamenes – and it is well taken.

Stronger by far is Lawrence Zazzo as Arsamenes, mind you he has more material to work with in a character that is at once obsessed by love and anger to prevent Xerxes’ designs towards Romilda. All of this was present in skilful acting and, for once, a truly manly counter-tenor tone – flexible and excellently projected to deliver a probing interpretation of Hytner’s English text. Graeme Danby rightly contrasted in tone and character as the servant Elviro to explore the comic possibilities that Handel allows for.

Xerxes for ENO remains an evergreen in good health that appears almost as fresh as it did long ago. No doubt it will be a central plank in their repertoire for years yet – and when as strongly cast as this, why not?



Evan Dickerson





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