United Kingdom Handel, Xerxes (sung in Italian with surtitles): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Northern College of Music/Roger Hamilton (conductor), Royal Northern College of Music Theatre, Manchester, 22.3.2012 (RJF)
Xerxes (Serse), Persian king Heather Ireson (mezzo soprano)
Arsamene, Xerses brother Helen Gregory (mezzo soprano).
Elviro, Arsame’s tipsy servant Timothy Allan (baritone).
Ariodate, Army Commander Laurence Kirkby (bass baritone)
Romilda, daughter of Ariodate Gabrielle Cassidy (soprano).
Atalanta, Arsamene’s lover Elisabeth Karani (soprano).
Amastre, forsaken by Xerxes Alexandria Wynn (mezzo soprano).
Director Stefan Janski.
Set and costume designer Velin Edrov.
Lighting designer Emma Chapman.
A Handel renaissance in the UK has been on the horizon – at least, in sight for the cognoscenti – since the 1980s. There were production of Julius Caesar and Xerxes at the English National Opera around that period. However, apart from the Summer Country House Festivals and Buxton, there has been little sight of Handel oratorio or opera except for the seasonal Messiahs since – until recently that is. First sight came with Opera North’s Giulio Cesare presented on its recent winter tour (see review). Since then Welsh National Opera has indicated a staging of the Oratorio Jephtha for its autumn season at Cardiff and during the associated tour. I cannot remember the RNCM presenting any Handel since Alcina twenty or more years ago, which was, together with Cosi Fan Tutte, the vehicle they used to showcase the rapidly emerging talent of Amanda Roocroft (who went from the College direct to a contract with Welsh National Opera. Last year’s outstanding alumni, Kathryn Rudge, went from RCNM to work at English National Opera before appearing, to good reviews, in the run of performances of Giulio Cesare by Opera North already referred to. One swallow does not make a spring, but with two professional companies each scheduling one of Handel’s works, now followed by one of our leading conservatories, that promised renaissance might just be getting nearer.
In the recent Opera North season Giulio Cesare wasrun alongside Bellini’s Norma. One concerned the goings-on in Rome, and the other events in Roman Gaul around two thousand years ago. In neither production was a toga in sight nor was there any stage prop that could have indicated this period. The costumes in this RNCM production appeared to be of the period of the work’s composition rather than updated to the present, which seems the de rigeur state in the few productions of the composer’s works that make it onto the stage in the UK or Europe. A tree, essential for the opening and justly famous aria Ombra mai fu (known as Handel’s Largo) placed atop a set of steps was our first view. Otherwise large patterned panelled sliding flats were moved easily across the stage to distinguish the various scenes. Also effective were the doors and outside sky at the rear of the stage which were well used for the frequent entrances and exits. Stefan Janski’s direction of his soloists and chorus was typical of the high standard regulars have come to expect at RNCM’s productions.
That the College could field a double casting of this demanding baroque opera, with its many arias for each soloist, is astounding, particularly if the alternate cast is anything like the singers I heard on the opening night. Whilst recognising that the RNCM theatre is smaller than those that many of the singers will meet when they embark into the big wide world of the professional lyric stage, the quality of the singing was outstanding. The singing, acting and, significantly, the diction of the brothers Xerxes and Arsamene, sung by Heather Ireson and Helen Gregory were particularly notable. As Romilda, whose singing enchants Xerxes, Gabrielle Cassidy’s singing enchanted me; but she needs to relax on stage more and remember that body language and the use of arms can help vocal expression. In the latter respect Elisabeth Karani’s Atlanta was ideal, whilst Alexandria Wynn as Amastre was a little diffident in her acted portrayal though singing with pleasing phrasing and tone.
This staging of Xerxes includes two genuine males as distinct from sometime castrati or en travesti singers. The dignified sonorous singing and portrayal of Ariodate, Commander of the Army, by the bass baritone Laurence Kirkby was excellent. In the comic part of Elviro, whose incapacity to do a good job with the post causes all sorts of complications, Timothy Allan perhaps overdid the tipsy bit, which covered his vocal work in progress whilst also adding some humour to the proceedings. In the pit Roger Hamilton drew excellent period playing from his orchestra.
There are further performances on Tuesday 27th and Thursday 29th and Saturday 31st March, all at 7pm for opera lovers to catch up on the rarity of a well staged Handel opera – a genre all too rarely seen in the UK.
Robert J Farr