Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera

16th and 18th November 2007

Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, Cambridge

Handel: Xerxes (Serse)

Sung in English (Nicholas Hytner translation, ed. Sally Bradshaw)


 “The contexture of this Drama is so very easy, that it wou’d be troubling the reader to give him a long argument to explain it. Some imbicilities, and the temerity of Xerxes (such as his being deeply enamour’d with a plane tree, and the building a bridge over the Hellespont to unite Asia to Europe) are the basis of the story; the rest is fiction.”


So reads the programme to the first performance of Handel’s Xerxes at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Despite, or perhaps because of, all that, the newly-founded Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera made an unerring choice for their inaugural production at the college. In an opera dominated almost entirely by solo singers and the ever-changing relationships between the characters, it’s vital to use highly trained principals, and that’s exactly what we got. In this show the cast really knew their stuff. Although they weren’t all full-time singers, the principals were all vocally and dramatically secure in their respective roles, enabling the convoluted and preposterous ‘plot’ to evolve fluently in a way that was readily comprehensible. Comic and tragic scenes succeeded each other in a natural and unforced way, and the many moments of anguish or irony in the dialogue evoked a continual response from the knowledgeable audience.


But it was in the quality of the singing itself that the production really shone. It would be invidious (and in this case that’s no mere cliché) to single out any one singer. First up was mezzo-soprano Ruth Taylor in the title role, standing in for a castrato – you just can’t get them nowadays. Despite not being in the least bit overweight or of gigantic stature (castrati apparently often were) she managed the wide range of emotions demanded by the score with great versatility and sang with glorious tone. Romilda was portrayed winsomely by Suzana Ograjenšek, whose delightful soprano was matched by an English diction as good as any despite her Slovene origins. Particularly fine were her accompanied recitative and rage aria in Act III.  Ben Williamson as Arsamenes was the male alto in the production and showed great vocal flexibility control in that register; he also managed to look sad and lovelorn throughout. His angry duet with Romilda was one of the highlights. Handel’s only comic role, the servant Elviro, was portrayed by accomplished baritone Thomas Faulkner, whose mood of fatigue was a little artificial in Act I, but he ‘blossomed’ as a flower seller in Act II, and he became agreeably drunk. As Romilda’s scheming sister Atalanta we had the irrepressible soprano Lotte Johnson whose firm singing and tomboyish ways stole the show at various points. Portraying the foreign princess Amastris in (transparent) disguise was mezzo Isabella Gage, who developed into a formidable personality. Sturdy bass Christopher Law sang the role of the sisters’ blundering father Ariodates (surely the youngest general ever to command the Persian Army) with warm tone and lots of presence, despite some fidgety movement. There was some initial nervousness generally, only to be expected on the first night, but spirits improved later. The chorus sang their minor musical contributions with energy and always looked well-drilled on stage.


The idea of using the Fitzwilliam String Quartet as the (modern pitch) orchestra was fully vindicated by their excellent playing, coupled with that of Francis Knights (harpsichord) and other selected musicians. Fergus Macleod conducted with great faithfulness to the details of Handel’s lively score and his tempi were ideal throughout.


The elegant sets by Claire V.S. Pike were all in good Baroque taste. In Act I the pastel-coloured Persian scenery was constructed so that ‘plane’ tree, throne room and lounge could be swiftly replaced by an outdoor feel for Act II. A backdrop collage of triangular sails in a watercolour palette represented the Bridge of Boats which collapsed satisfyingly at the right moment. In Act III a glowing pyramidal wedding altar took centre stage. The projected lighting effects were always appropriate.


For Claire Pike’s costume and other design work there can only be praise. The flowing gold robes and crown of Xerxes, Romilda’s simple blue shift with wedding veil later, Atalanta’s contrasting outfit with black waistcoat – all cleverly designed to harmonise well with the sets. The props were also of good quality, as was the glossy programme, worth the £2 charged. A vast amount of work must have gone into the production, and the large backstage and technical team under Andrew Booker and Mike Rudin can’t all be mentioned for space reasons, but most of them belong to the Penguin Club, an amateur theatrical support group operating in Cambridge and beyond. The project is the brainchild of Michael Downes (Music Director, Fitzwilliam College) and director Sally Bradshaw, for whose vision and expert tuition no praise is high enough. Easily the best evening’s entertainment in Cambridge, the production will be repeated at the Theatre Royal Bury, St. Edmunds, in April 2008.


Robert Johnson