For many Handel opera fans of a certain generation (including myself), Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes (Serse in Italian) is an eternal classic production – most recently revived earlier this season at the ENO – and it is hard to escape from its images when seeing another production. Yet, Hampstead Garden Opera’s new staging is slick and contemporary with a well thought-out re-interpretation of the plot, offering a fresh perspective on the opera.

Jean-Max Lettemann(Xerxes) © Laurent Compagnon
Jean-Max Lettemann(Xerxes)
© Laurent Compagnon

What do we need to know about the plot of Xerxes? Only that “he loves a plane tree (the famous aria “Ombra mai fù”) and that he built a bridge, and the rest is fiction” as Elviro informs us in a preamble to the opera. To give the character of Elviro (servant of Arsamenes, Xerxes’ brother) the role of pulling the strings from behind is one of the director’s smart ideas. In the director’s notes in the programme, Andrew Davidson explains that basically, if you take Xerxes not as a king but just as a typical childish adult, the parallels between the opera and modern society become apparent, and that is how he stages the opera, albeit with a few tweaks to the plot.

Basically, Xerxes is infatuated with Romilda, his brother Arsamenes’ girlfriend, even though he has a fiancée Amastris. Meanwhile Romilda’s jealous little sister Atalanta takes this chance and tries to steal her sister’s boyfriend. At one point in the opera it seems that no one will be united with their beloved, but with a little help from the quick-witted Elviro (in this staging he is Arsamenes’s best friend rather than servant, and he also doubles as Romilda’s father Ariodantes, adding a further comical touch), Romilda and Arsameses are married, and in the end Xerxes is reconciled with Amastris who appears with his child (obviously a modern twist of the plot). There are minimal sets – a chair, a symbolic tree made out of paper, some origami ships and translucent curtains, but singers are well directed so that the dynamic between the characters in any scene is always clear.

HGO's <i>Xerses</i> © Laurent Compagnon
HGO's Xerses
© Laurent Compagnon

The standard of the singers in the cast was very high and any of them could be on a bigger stage. Some singers are still at music college and some have already had a lot of stage experience but there was a great team spirit and some very good acting notably from Chris Webb (Elviro/Ariodantes) and Rosie Rowell (Atalanta). There were two interesting casting choices in this production: a) to cast a countertenor as Xerxes – originally a castrato role but nowadays mostly sung by a mezzo-soprano as it has quite a high range – and also to share the role of Arsamenes (another castrato role) between a mezzo-soprano and baritone over the two casts. Probably this decision has been taken so that the relationship between the characters in this modern setting are more believable and convincing.

In the cast I saw on Sunday afternoon, Xerxes was sung by the young German countertenor Jean-Max Lattemann. He has a smooth and lyrical voice with an unconstrained top range, and in particular he showed flair in his Act II aria “Se brameate d’amar” (here sung in English). He is certainly a talent to watch out for. On Sunday, Arsamenes was sung by baritone Oskar McCarthy with eloquence and agility, and he played the character of the suffering brother and lover with such sensitivity that I felt sympathy for him. The two sisters, Romilda and Atalanta were believable on stage as sisters: soprano Corinne Hart is a polished and experienced singer and very comfortable in the Handelian style. She was very feisty, yet controlled, in her aria “Se l’idol mio” displaying lovely coloratura. Rosie Rowell has an elegant and quite a powerful voice and she portrayed the jealous sister brilliantly and was expressive in the recitatives too. The mezzo-soprano Freya Jacklin (Amastris) doesn’t have the best music in the opera, but one could tell she was a classy singer from her first appearance (disguised as a soldier) at the end of Act I and she sang her aria with style and lovely embellishments. Last but not least, Chris Webb sang Elviro/Ariodates with the perfect buffo touch, and with a bit of falsetto thrown in.

Chris Webb (Elviro) in disguise as the flower-seller © Laurent Compagnon
Chris Webb (Elviro) in disguise as the flower-seller
© Laurent Compagnon

In the intimate space of the Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate, singing this opera in English really makes sense, also because although Xerxes is an opera seria there are actually many comic moments too. On this occasion they had a guest conductor, Richard Hetherington from the music staff at the Royal Opera House, who conducted with great energy from the keyboard. The orchestra, consisting of one-to-a-part strings and oboes doubling recorders, supported the singers with incisive and vibrant playing.