Review, Axerxes, by English Touring Opera at Malvern Festival Theatre
The musical values of this English Touring Opera presentation of Xerxes (apparently a comedy, though I never find Handel a barrel of laughs) are extraordinarily high.
Singing is of a uniformly impressive quality from the entire cast, athletic, deftly embellished, sparky at times, engrossingly heartfelt at others.
And the orchestral playing on period instruments from the Old Street Band (you have to hunt through the interesting programme before you can find them credited) is sublime; best, though, not to be distracted by Jonathan Peter Kenny’s extragavant conducting gestures.
You can tell a “but” is coming, and here it is.
The production is a blatant example of “director’s opera”, foisting a Second World War setting onto what is admittedly a pretty ludicrous scenario anyway.
So James Conway sets the action in a Spitfire hangar (Sarah Bacon’s design), and, occasionally, we get back-projections of bombing raids, tracer-bullets and searchlights – Foyle’s War meets ’Allo, ‘Allo.
“Ombra mai fu” sung to a Spitfire? In Handel’s score it’s sung under a plane tree – geddit?
The cast cope with all this farrago manfully, including Julia Riley’s Xerxes, who swaggers around, smoking a pipe, with the most convincing masculine body-language – memories of Michael Redgrave in war films spring to mind.
Clint van der Linde brings a wonderfully burnished countertenor to the role of Arsamenes, but the singer who really brought the show to life for me was Louise Alder, flown down from Perth to understudy the vibrant role of Atalanta.