Xerxes

Britten Theatre, London

Thanks to Herodotus and Frank Miller, the story of Xerxes I is fairly well known. Still, it always pays to read the synopsis at the opera. "King Xerxes", begins James Conway's new production for English Touring Opera, "admires the new Spitfire, which he hopes will transform his continental campaign." "Admires" is perhaps an understatement, as Xerxes addresses the aircraft with one of Handel's most beautiful arias. And so it goes. Arsamene is the Dambusters' squadron leader Guy Gibson, Ariodates is Barnes Wallis, and the Hellespont becomes the Ruhr dams.

Thankfully, there is no dog, but the move from 470BC Abydos to 1943 RAF Scampton seems misjudged. The far-fetched comparison between the Persian despot's blind vanity and the "plucky Brit" of RAF legend is potentially unhelpful. But thanks to a cobbling together of directorial inspiration and common-sense design, the show is consistently funny. Collisions between classical and modern reference in the half-updated libretto are alleviated by cleverly playing with 21st-century sensibilities at the same time, like a chronological cat's cradle. Xerxes's final emotional volte face always comes as a bit of a bombshell, so to effect it here during a direct hit by enemy bombers is clever. Some things really don't work – the poppies at the end are in bad taste, and the video is somewhat half-hearted – and much will need revising.

Musically, however, it is gripping from take-off to landing. Jonathan Peter Kenny's classy, high-octane conducting achieves wonders of continuity and contrast from his period band, while the cast is among ETO's most impressive yet. Particularly good are Julia Riley – a powerful mezzo who impressed in last season's Clemenza di Tito – and the soprano Laura Mitchell, whose technically accomplished and emotionally clear Romilda both leads the opera's brave excursion from comedy into tragedy and returns to tell the tale.

Contributor

Guy Dammann

The GuardianTramp

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