Opera Scotland

Xerxes 2018Byre Opera

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Xerxes is famous largely for the first melody after the overture. The Persian king breaks off his preparations for war against the Greeks to serenade a particularly beautiful plane tree under whose shade he is resting. But 'Ombra mai fu' (aka 'Handel's Largo') is far from being the only superbly memorable piece in this excellent, wonderfully witty drama, one of Handel's last Italian operas.

In this staging, the tree was cut down to size, more a bonsai, and certainly not able to provide shade for anyone. It was wheeled about the stage throughout the performance. Indeed the whole concept of the production was much more horticultural than usual. Any reference to the forthcoming invasion of Greece, and the necessary engineering works to get an army over the Hellespont, also bit the dust. The important character of Ariodates, not just our heroine's father, but the general in charge of all these mighty works, was recast as the head gardener - Xerxes was planning a bit of Versailles-style  landscaping, and the stage was littered with surplus furniture and equipment that Charlie Dimmock and the entire tribe of celebrity gardeners would have leapt on with glee.

Some years ago, the company staged a much earlier, and simpler, Handel piece, Acis and Galatea. His Italian operas are more complex, and vocally very demanding, so it was very ambitious of Byre Opera to attempt a work like Xerxes. The Byre Theatre itself was the perfect venue. It is small enough for young voices not to be tempted to strain and it also has a good acoustic.

Most of the performers were students. That does not mean they are quite comparable to the young near-professionals who have performed Handel operas at the Conservatoire in Glasgow (in recent years giving very creditable performances of both Agrippina and Rinaldo). These voices are certainly well-schooled, and able to tackle the demanding vocal style required in a wide range of arias. What they for the most part lacked was the sheer power and projection usually required. So the venue was vitally important - any auditorium of larger scale might have caused them problems.

Of the singers, Catherine Hooper in the title role, began quietly, and was never consistent as to volume. However by the last act she had judged things better and was projecting well in dramatic sequences. The two men both projected with ease, especially Peter Sutton in the comic servant part. Ariodates is not an entirely credible figure as prince-general in the original, and his recasting as garden designer actually worked well.

Of the other women, one sang and acted with complete assurance - Katherine Gunya as the princess formerly contracted to Xerxes, who disguises herself in order to win him back. The other ladies sang with a great deal of accomplishment, producing sweet-toned and technically well-schooled vocalism. They provided much to enjoy, including a good deal of subtle ornamentation to the vocal line - it all sounded very natural. The small chorus (seven voices) suffered from periods of inaudibility - they were singing from the wings quite a lot.

Michael Downes controlled the whole show stylishly, and had assembled a small period band in the tiny pit that played with superb quality. Called the Fitzwilliam Band, that excellent Quartet provided the nucleus, with the other players brought in mainly from London. There were only nine musicians in all, the string quartet being augmented by a double bass, two oboes (doubling recorder), theorbo and harpsichord. This excellent group of seasoned professionals anchored the whole performance in a most enjoyable way.

Admission £19, £15 (concessions), £10 (students and under 26)

Performance Cast

Serse (Xerxes) King of Persia

Catherine Hooper (Exc Jun 30; Jul 1)

Katie Grosset (Jun 30; Jul 1)

Arsamene (Arsamenes) brother of Xerxes, in love with Romilda

Lauren Gage

Romilda daughter of Ariodate, in love with Arsamene

Fanny Empacher

Atalanta Romilda's sister, also (though secretly) in love with Arsamene

Raphaƫlle Daoglio

Amastre (Amastris) Princess of Tagor betrothed to Xerxes, disguised as a man

Katherine Gunya

Ariodate (Ariodates) a prince, commander of Xerxes' army

Theodore Day

Elviro servant to Arsamene

Peter Sutton

Performance DatesXerxes 2018

Map List

Byre Theatre | St Andrews

22 Jun, 19.30 23 Jun, 19.30 24 Jun, 19.30

Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed | Berwick-upon-Tweed

30 Jun, 19.30 1 Jul, 16.00

Priory Church of the Order of St John | London

5 Jul, 19.30 6 Jul, 19.30

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