Most stage directors of repute have their signature ideas that crop up whatever the work being presented. Anyone who has seen, or read about, the Royal Opera’s current Queen of Spades will know that Stefan Herheim’s directorial Leitmotif is to engage with the creation and/or history of the given work, whether it be through an army of Tchaikovskys, Mozart’s Figaro dressed in his own music or a Bayreuth Parsifal ensconced in Wahnfried. For Handel’s Xerxes (or Serse, in the original Italian), he has turned the largely fictional story of the Persian king’s amorous exploits into a backstage farce among the singers of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, where the opera was first performed in April 1738. Here, the castrati are sovereign, Xerxes (is he meant to be King George?) lording it over the company in an array of outrageous costumes as if to compensate for what’s missing down below, and competing with his brother Arsamenes for the attentions of the two ‘primadonne’, Romilda and Atalanta, while being hounded by his spurned lover Amastris. It’s a playful take, with judicious liberties of text and character within the existing plot of disguise and mangled communications, but ultimately succeeding in presenting what the programme’s synopsis pertinently describes as “the threshold between the world of the theatre and the theatre of the world”.

Valer Barna-Sabadus (Xerxes) and Torben Jürgens (Ariodates)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Heike Scheele’s impressive set is virtually a complete Baroque theatre, decked out with traditional stage machinery and decoration (expertly overseen by a couple of dozen costumed stage hands who deservedly received their own curtain call), and revolving to reveal Hogarthian backstage areas. Stage effects are in period, too, including an impressive tableau for the infamous pontoon bridge between Asia and Europe, and a hilarious coup de théâtre involving a cannon blowing a hole in the theatre’s rear wall (the climax of a scene in which the sisters’ rivalry gets out of hand with ever more deadly weaponry). At one point the stage hands get their panels with the letters of Xerxes’ name in a muddle, reminding us what they read in reverse…

Heidi Elisabeth Meier (Romilda) and Terry Wey (Arsamenes)
© Hans Jörg Michel

The opera is given largely in a German translation, adapted by the director, but key arias are sung in the original Italian, including Xerxes’ famous opening love song to a tree, which gives a sense of performance and rehearsal within the offstage shenanigans. The orchestra (the vibrant period-instrument Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik) plays its part, too, standing up en masse when accused of roguishness and with individual players occasionally interacting with the characters. At one point, Xerxes pushes himself as far as the conductor’s podium, displacing hard-working Konrad Junghänel in the process, to endear himself to his real-life audience.

Katarina Bradić (Amastris)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Herheim’s staging, co-produced with the Komische Oper in Berlin, was first seen in Düsseldorf in 2013 and now returns with its original cast, except for the fact that the scheduled Xerxes, countertenor Valer Sabadus was indisposed for this first night and his place was taken by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel, a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble. With all its detailed stage business, it’s hardly the sort of production to make it easy for a jump-in, but fortunately, Houtzeel arrived primed from the Berlin runs in 2016 and 2018 and leapt back into the role with obvious relish, dramatically and vocally. Terry Wey’s countertenor Arsamenes sounded a little less forward by comparison, but the two sisters – Heidi Elisabeth Meier’s Romilda and Anke Krabbe’s Atalanta – were more ideally matched. Katarina Bradić was a fiery Amastris – a kind of early Donna Elvira – Hagen Matzeit made effortless use of his dual baritone/countertenor attributes as the servant Elviro who disguises himself as a female flower seller, and bass Torben Jürgens was a sonorous Ariodates, father to the two sisters. The chorus, appearing at the end in modern dress to bring home the ‘theatre of the world’ idea, brought a final note of calm resolution to proceedings.

The production can be seen on Operavision from 29 January.