Tuesday 16 September 2014

Serse, English National Opera, 15 September 2014


(sung in English as Xerxes)

Serse – Alice Coote
Arsamene – Andrew Watts
Amastre – Catherine Young
Ariodate – Neal Davies
Romilda – Sarah Tynan
Atalanta – Rhian Lois
Elviro – Adrian Powter

Nicholas Hytner (director)
Michael Walling (revival director)
David Fielding (designs)
Paul Pyant, Martin Doone (lighting)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Dominic Peckham)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Michael Hofstetter (conductor)

It was a delight to welcome Nicholas Hytner’s charming, witty staging of Serse, or Xerxes, intelligently revived by Michael Wallingm back to the Coliseum. Some of ENO’s so-called ‘classic revivals’ have stretched the term beyond breaking-point; this, however, does seem to qualify both as a revival in more than name and, in its own way, as a ‘classic’. Having won an Olivier award on its first outing in the anniversary year of 1985, Hytner’s production lightly frames an opera which, if we are honest, has nothing meaningful to do with ancient Persia, in terms of a re-imagined eighteenth century. Images from something akin to Georgian Vauxhall – topiary, newspapers, aristocratic finery – merge happily and without the slightest pedantry with hints at the Enlightenment archaeological imperialism of the British Museum, ‘anachronisms’ such as deck chairs in the park, the anonymised ritual of white-faced courtiers, the celebrated Handel statue in Westminster Abbey, and so forth, to enable our minds and memories to play upon whatever associations they will, without damage to the slight comedy that is the ‘drama’ of the piece and which is really more of an excuse for a fine succession of Handelian melodies than anything else. (That said, the sense of a different æsthetic, not just that of opera seria, but also of the often-unacknowledged experimentalism of Vauxhall, is present too, perhaps especially in the revival.)

Whilst, even in this, one of the strongest of Handel’s operas, it is difficult and would probably be perverse to care about the characters and their actions in the way one would in the greatest of his dramatic oratorios, let alone in an opera by Monteverdi or Mozart, the cast offered not only a generally strong set of vocal performances but, for the most part, more than plausible acting too. Alice Coote seemed to be an audience favourite but, for me, hers was a strikingly mixed performance: at its best very good, especially rich in the lower range, but too often resorting to downright shouting, and with decidedly mixed results when it came to coloratura. Andrew Watts’s coloratura was often found wanting too; I had the sense that he would have been happier in contemporary than Baroque opera. Otherwise, there was little about which to cavil at all. Sarah Tynan’s Romilda was beautifully sung throughout, with a fine sense indeed of how coloratura can, even in Handel opera, strain towards true dramatic meaning. Rhian Lois captured to a tee the character of her scheming yet ultimately insouciant sister, Atalanta, and was just as impressive in vocal terms. Catherine Young offered relative gravity and, again, equally excellent singing as the disguised heiress, Amastre (Amastris here). Neal Davies and Adrian Powter were more than serviceable in the smaller roles of Ariodate and Elviro. Direction of the chorus was finely judged too.

I feared the worst at the beginning of Michael Hofstetter’s account of the Overture. Vibrato-less strings and a hard-driven tempo had me thinking we should be in for something akin to typical English ‘Baroque’ – actually, nothing of the sort – puritanism.  However, within the bounds of what is (sadly) nowadays possible, Hofstetter’s conducting and the ENO Orchestra’s response showed considerably flexibility and an enlightened approach towards musical expression of which I had more or less given up hope. There was not, of course, the rich tone of the old ‘live’ recording (in German) from Rafael Kubelík, with Fritz Wunderlich no less, but the performance compared well with Charles Mackerras (this production, on DVD). Not only was there genuine ‘life’ to be heard in the pit, it sounded like an orchestra rather than a tired end-of-pier band, such as more recently suffered here from so-called ‘specialists’. This work’s particular fluidity of recitative and aria – perhaps harking back to one of Handel’s sources in Cavalli’s version? – was well served, dramatic impetus not, at least after the Overture, being mistaken for the tyranny of the bandmaster. If there were times when a little more warmth would not have gone amiss from the strings, they were fewer than one might have expected. Continuo playing was alert and, again, far from inflexible. ENO could do far worse than ask Hofstetter back in such repertoire – especially when one considers the alternatives.

There will be a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, on 4 October.