“I ask your indulgence,” writes director James Conway, “for the little song to a plane.” And so it is that Julia Riley’s smooth Xerxes apostrophises not to the famous plane tree of a more traditional “Ombra mai fu”, but the rear end of a spitfire! This wordplay sets the scene for a production filled with quirky directorial titbits (a phallic windsock anyone?), but updating 470BC Abydos to a 1940s RAF base complete with tin hangar and outdoor privy seemed at times more Dad’s Army than a particularly cohesive tale of war and love.

Julia Riley (Xerxes) and Clint van der Linde (Arsamenes) © Richard Hubert Smith
Julia Riley (Xerxes) and Clint van der Linde (Arsamenes)
© Richard Hubert Smith

ETO’s decision to do without surtitles doesn’t do justice to Nicholas Hytner’s beautiful translation, which was sometimes lost when vocal virtuosity and a breathtakingly fast pace set by the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny with the Old Street Band won the battle against clear diction. In a play with perhaps not the most easily followed plot, Conway’s screen updates helped little and were more of a distraction than conducive to the plot. In brief: Xerxes hears Romilda (the deliciously ravishing Laura Mitchell) singing and is determined to marry her, but she is in love with the King’s brother (Clint van der Linde, back in the role of a slightly petulant but deeply in love Arsamenes). However, the King is already betrothed to the princess Armastris (a feisty Carolyn Dobbin), who is not going to give up that easily; add into the mix Romilda’s meddling sister Atalanta (Galina Averina), determined to have Arsamenes at any cost, and hapless sidekick Elviro (a slapstick Peter Brathwaite), and it’s less love triangle than near carnage.

Galina Averina (Atalanta) and Laura Mitchell (Romilda) © Richard Hubert Smith
Galina Averina (Atalanta) and Laura Mitchell (Romilda)
© Richard Hubert Smith

All this energy hurtling around stage, however, does call for a fabulous array of arias that would tick every box for the Handel lover, from the sublime “Tell me to forget him, but you cannot tell me how” sung by a crushed, but glorious Atalanta, to Xerxes menacing fury (“If you worship a man who has spurned you”), and back to a genuinely hilarious and fabulously staged catfight between the two sisters as they get ready to bed (“If you seduce him, his heart his mine”). Never before have curlers been clipped in place with such grim determination.

Comedic moments such as this, however, jar with some of the menace that intrinsically underlies much of the plot. Xerxes is a man who will do anything to possess Romilda, and although Riley’s swaggering king is surprisingly affable and genial, his moments of brutality are shocking and too swift: seizing a cowering Romilda, his abrupt and complete desecration of a bunch of flowers feels unnatural for a man who moments ago had been tottering around, hands in pockets, stroking an aeroplane. The subtle shift from comedy to tragedy and back is not quite subtle enough, and this throws the pacing. Archive footage of bombing raids used frequently during the production also jars with light-hearted moments in a not always comfortable manner, but indulgence was asked for, and the serene touch of poppies growing where a bouncing bomb had been, successfully harmonises the two in the end.

Laura Mitchell (Romilda) and Clint van der Linde (Arsamenes) © Richard Hubert Smith
Laura Mitchell (Romilda) and Clint van der Linde (Arsamenes)
© Richard Hubert Smith

But as is often the way with the ETO, it is the singing that carries the slightly more tenuous directorial moments – and oh, what voices. Mitchell’s soaring beauty was equally matched by her nimble dexterity, and every aria was a pearl. Brathwaite’s bumbling Elviro did not compromise on tonal quality, and Dobbin was a real delight; even stumbling around, hands clasped to a hipflask and with helmet askew, her sparkling voice left none in doubt that she was as good a match for the King as any. With such a small cast and with so much vocal athleticism required – Handel was not particularly kind to his lovers – the omission of several da capos, and of virtually all the chorus material, can perhaps be excused.

This vocal exuberance is matched in the clever set; the addition of a window in the hangar where the watchers can become the watched is a neat trick, and a simple central raised area is a fantastic platform-on-a-platform for the arias to take on their virtuosic form. It’s a show with a slightly shaky premise – but, like Armastris’ hare-brained schemes to win back her man at whatever cost –  it does just about work.