Xerxes opens with the eponymous king singing a love ode. There's nothing strange about this, until one realises that the ode is sung to a plane tree. Ombra mai fu is often known as Handel's Largo and is popular at weddings. It may be a beautiful tune, but the words undercut this. This joyful attitude towards nature and culture permeates this whole wonderful show.
When it first opened though, in 1738, it was so unsuccessful that Handel never wrote another opera. Yet, when Nicholas Hytner put it on in 1985 it became an instant hit. Explaining the plot is barely useful. Xerxes (Alice Coote) and his brother Arsamenes (Andrew Watts) both fall in love with Romilda (Sarah Tynan), while Amastris (Catherine Young) loves Xerxes and Atalanta (Rhian Lois) loves Arsamenes. This all has to be worked out in the shadow of Xerxes' vain attempts to conquer the Hellespont with a bridge under the command of Romilda's father Ariodates (Neil Davies). Proceedings are moved along by Arsamenes' faithful servant Elviro (Adrian Powter).
Set in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Hytner uses this 'past' timeframe to link an anachronistic Persepolis with the modern day. This is a long opera (3 hours 30 minutes), consisting mainly of solo arias and recitative. In order to keep the momentum going, much extra 'business' is conducted on stage. It might be the knighting of soldiers, or their later game of boules, livening up interactions with Ariodates. It might be the chorus coming out for tea, or to admire the plane tree or a giant egg, shushing the soloists whose presence they have invaded. Most of this is carried out in slow motion, all choreans clad in grey, which lends an air of surreal grandeur to proceedings.
The opera is conducted under the gaze of a statue inscribed Timotheus. This statue is a copy of the Roubilliac's state for Handel in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The first statue commissioned there of a living artist, it depicts Handel partly in 'ancient' garb, with a cupid at his feet and an artistic soft cap, mirrored in the chorus' costumes. Timotheus was a famous musician in Alexander the Great's court. Alexander postdates Xerxes, but this production conflates history, making the most of borrowed motifs. In the Eighteenth Century itself, Handel was described as a Timotheus, and the production is a commentary on the composer and the era.
The singing is superb. The arias are mainly solo. Usually duets would be used between lovers, but in this parody of operatic convention, the only two duets are tiffs between lovers, with Arsamenes and Romilda falling straight from their argument into the wedding. Diction is so clear that the surtitles are unnecessary. The comic timing between performers is exceptional, with the momentum and pace maintained throughout the show. The orchestra are playing well, admirably conducted by Michael Hoffstetter. Again, the pace, clarity and precision is excellent, the balance with the singers mainly well-judged, and the experience magical.
The show becomes a cabinet of curiosities. This artful conceit only falls down at one point. Towards the end of act 1 there is one of the most ridiculous points in the play, where the grassy curtain is lowered and one of the balding footmen appears behind it, atop a ladder, to clip it as though it were a hedge. This action has become synonymous with the production, although Hytner is said only to have intended it as a quick joke. This is swiftly followed by a more laborious set of arias from Ariodates and Amastris, whose restless rushing around the stage just looks contrived, as though they have to find something to do.
Sphinxes roll on, statues fall, the bridge collapses and Persepolis burns. This opera turns tragic events (the fall of Xerxes) into a proper comedy, with plenty of light relief around an exploration of the nature of kingship bound up with the follies of love. It's hard to imagine why you wouldn't enjoy it!
The programme is worth buying. It is full of excellent short articles by leaders in the field of Handel studies, opera and the Eighteenth Century. If you're interested in the context of the work, it will enrich your enjoyment of the show. If you want to find out more later, it's a great introduction to eighteenth-century studies. For anyone who wants to follow up this show in particular, Sarah Lenton's marvellous book Backstage at the Opera is a fascinating study in what it takes to get a show on.
Well-sung and well-acted, in a glorious (if ridiculous) romp of a production, I cannot rate Hytner's Xerxes highly enough. If you can't go this season, cross your fingers it comes back soon. In the meantime, there are dubious copies of a 1980s recording one can purchase. They'll do in the absence of the stage!