In 1985, Nicholas Hytner, current director of London's National Theatre, presented a very imaginative version of Handel's Xerxes. His minimalist approach to a Baroque opera became a pivotal moment on how Handel was going to be shown in the future. It won an Olivier award for such a daring experiment. Xerxes contains all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster, there was no such thing as public funding in those years and ticket office success was paramount, but with a great sense of humour and depth in portraying the main characters. A masterpiece accessible to all.
Almost 25 years later, it still remains its freshness and the same dilemmas we face today: intrigue, infidelity, disguise, jealousy and secret love are played out as the action centres on the rivalry between Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes for the love of the same woman, Romilda. The opening aria 'Under thy shade' (Ombra mai fù), is one of Handel's most celebrated melodies.
ENO Xerxes - Neal Davies, Alice Coote and ENO Chorus (c) Mike Hoban
Over the past 29 years, the title role of Xerxes has been played by some of the world's most outstanding mezzo-sopranos including Ann Murray in 1985 and 1988, Louise Winter in 1994 and Sarah Connolly in 1998 and 2002, whose international career was launched by the role. For this revival, internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings the title role for the first time. Alice recently played Detective Anne Strewson in the ENO co-production of Nico Muhly's Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera. Previously for ENO she has sung roles in The Coronation of Poppea, Orpheus and Euridices, Ariodante, Le Clemenza di Tito, Carmen and Die Rosenkavalier.
Counter tenor Andrew Watts plays Arsamenes . Andrew also sung the voice of Vyasemskaya and Pleasant Voice of the Dog in ENO's production of Alexander Raskatovs A Dog's Heart directed by Simon McBurney in 2010.
Soprano Sarah Tynan sings the role of Romilda. She is stunning and fills the stage with her charisma and first-rate performance. A real treat. Sarah was an ENO Harewood Artist and later became an ENO Company Principal, a position she held until 2007. Recent roles for ENO include Marzelline in Calixto Bieito's production of Fidelio in 2013 and Sharon in the UK premiere of Philip Glass's The Perfect American in 2013, directed by Phelim McDermott. In their first Handelian roles ENO Harewood Artists Rhian Lois and Catherine Young are Atalanta (Romilda's naughty sister) and Amastris (Xerxes jilted fiancée) respectively. Rhian has recently played Adele in Christopher Alden's Die Fledermaus in September 2013 and First Niece in David Alden's critically acclaimed revival of Peter Grimes in January 2014. Catherine took part in ENO Baylis Opera Works programme in 2009-2010, and in September 2010 became an ENO Harewood Artist. She made her professional debut with ENO in June 2011 as Hippolyta in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bass Neal Davies sings the role of Ariodates, Romilda's father. Previous roles for ENO include Kolenaty in The Makropoulos Case in 2010. He has also sung at The Royal Opera House, Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Baritone Adrian Powter plays Elviro, Arsamenes's servant.
ENO Xerxes - Adrian Powter and Catherine Young (c) Mike Hoban
Xerxes is a delight, a garden of exquisitely beautiful voices and highly accomplished acting. A time to listen to laments, raw emotions and, perhaps, reflect on our own endeavours. It has got substance and is rather light at the same time with the help of very amusing sketches. It is an opera I highly recommend to everybody familiar, and unfamiliar, with classical music.
Xerxes opens at the London Coliseum on Monday 15 September for 6 performances - 15, 20, 24, 26 September and 1, 3 October at 7.00pm.