Handel and Minato/Stampiglia
Royal Northern College of Music
22 March 2012 to 31 March 2012
Handel’s operas may be an acquired taste, but, once you’ve acquired it, the enjoyment can be very rich.
Stefan Janski’s production of Xerxes – one of the last the composer wrote and a flop at its inception, though now seen as one of his best – tackled its near-Shakespearian mix of high emotion and low comedy with a sure hand.
He had the considerable resources of the RNCM’s technical team, linking on this occasion with RADA, whose Velin Edrov designed the set and costumes. The staging was useful in presenting the variety of intimate and grander scenes (including the infamous plane tree to which Xerxes sings his opening aria … a wonderful tune that’s gone down in popular appreciation as Handel’s Largo). I did wonder about the number of times flat panels moved from side to side – especially when you could see walking feet behind them (shades of Morecambe and Wise) – but Emma Chapman’s lighting was otherwise very effective.
The costumes were 18th century, fitting with Janski’s staging of the opera in sympathy with the conventions of its period – not just musical, but in gesture and emotional content – which was an object lesson in itself.
The story is placed in ancient history and contains its comic as well as serious sides. Xerxes is a tyrant and thinks he can get his own way in love as in everything else (there’s historical warrant for his hubris here: he ordered the waters of the Hellespont to be whipped, for washing away the bridge he tried to build across it, so he might have been in the habit of singing to trees as well). He’s already abandoned one girl and thinks he’ll steal another. His intended actually loves his brother: her sister would like to.
With all those roles being high-voice and consequently the men played by women, you might get a bit confused, but credit to Janski and his cast for keeping story and characterisation clear. One of the girls’ and the two men’s roles have comic value, skilfully kept in its proper place. There were some good set-piece stage-fuls too, in best Janski style, especially the market scene of act two.
The RNCM fielded two complete casts and I saw both eventually. The two occupants of the title role - Hanna-Liisa Kirchin and Heather Ireson - were both highly accomplished performances, with the technical demands of the piece at their fingertips and sustaining the vocal power the role demands. Sophie Goldrick (Arsamene) is an excellent singing actress already, and Helen Gregory brought beautiful, pure tone to her portrayal. Gabriella Cassidy and Aimee Toshney each gave a different quality to the constant lover who is Romilda: the former delivering beautifully even tone and some creative ornamentation, the latter with an interesting combination of warmth and incisiveness. Atalanta, the shallow, scheming soprano, was also performed in different style by Elizabeth Karani (vocal pyrotechnics and a lively touch) and Eleanor Garside (a gifted comic actress and lovely singer). Each of the men performing Elviro the servant - Timothy Allan and Jonathan Alley - gave him fine comic life, too, and revealed warm baritone timbre.
Musically the performance is a paragon of period style and full of life – I loved the way the recitatives were snapped out as real conversations, and the lively tempi for the ‘furious’ arias. Conductor Roger Hamilton gets top marks.
Reviewer: Robert Beale