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.


Guy Dammann

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paul Bunyan – review

English Touring Opera's fine performance can't entirely mask the self-conscious quality of Britten's early 'operetta', writes George Hall

George Hall

18, Feb, 2014 @1:22 PM

La Clemenza di Tito – review

This evening's chief delight lies in the energy and attack of the orchestral playing under conductor Richard Lewis, writes George Hall

George Hall

14, Mar, 2011 @6:24 PM

Article image
Jason – review

Tim Ashley: Shipwrecks and bigamy give a tragi-comic edge to this production of Cavalli's erotic classic, which features glorious music

Tim Ashley

06, Oct, 2013 @2:48 PM

Article image
Simon Boccanegra – review

The singing is serviceable at best, but the dramatic power and intensity of one of Verdi's greatest achievements are always unmistakable, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

14, Mar, 2013 @5:49 PM

Article image
The Lighthouse – review

This atmospheric chamber opera imagines the fate of three real-life lighthouse keepers who went missing in 1900, writes George Hall

George Hall

12, Oct, 2012 @5:10 PM

Article image
King Priam – review

English Touring Opera's staging is hindered by practical constraints, but that doesn't diminish compelling performances, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

14, Feb, 2014 @12:41 PM

Article image
The Duenna - review

Michael Barker-Caven's production feels heavy-handed, though some of Sheridan's lines are genuinely witty, writes George Hall

George Hall

17, Oct, 2010 @9:01 PM

Article image
Werther review – emotional power despite the reductions
With a slimmed-down orchestra and baritone lead, Massenet’s opera sounds substantially different, but a strong cast, especially Lauren Zolezzi, ensure it’s a rewarding evening

George Hall

05, Oct, 2015 @1:07 PM

Così Fan Tutte – review

An unashamedly 18th-century Così occasionally lacks a bit of musical precision, but hits the spot in many respect, writes George Hall

George Hall

21, Mar, 2013 @5:39 PM

Article image
Don Giovanni review – Mozart's dark vision delivers subterranean thrills
Under Lloyd Wood’s guiding hand, English Touring Opera go underground to create the work’s best UK staging for some time

Tim Ashley

13, Mar, 2016 @1:18 PM