Xerxes (Serse in the original Italian) is a bit of an oddity amongst Handel’s operas: although now one of the composer’s most popular (in terms of the number of modern productions), it was a failure when first performed in 1738, and has often been criticised in the years for the poor quality of its libretto and for the brevity of its arias and ensemble numbers.

Hampstead Garden Opera, on their home turf of Upstairs at the Gatehouse, have avoided the first of these problems by performing the opera in English (in Nicholas Hytner’s clear, unfussy translation); would they manage to make a virtue of the second?

The plot is reasonably complex, but no more so than Handel’s most convoluted (Faramondo, which Handel composed just before Serse, was called ‘Handel’s worst opera’ by Winton Dean on account of the ‘hopelessly obscure’ plot): Xerxes, king of Persia, has cast off his fiancée Amastris and has become enamoured of Romilda, who has promised herself to his brother Arsamenes. Romilda’s sister Atalanta wants Arsamenes for herself, and so concocts a plan to force the lovers apart and drive Romilda into the arms of Xerxes – for a while, it looks like she has succeeded, but her deceit is discovered, and Romilda and Arsamenes are reconciled; they quietly marry. When Xerxes learns of this, he orders Arsamenes to kill Romilda. At this moment, a soldier steps forward and offers to carry out the execution, but then reveals ‘him’-self to be Amastris, who has been observing all the goings-on; Xerxes, overcome by remorse, asks Amastris to kill him instead – but she refuses, and she and Xerxes are reconciled. Got it?

Director Andrew Davidson has constructed a bare set, with translucent curtains at the rear used to distinguish different scenes and locations. The single piece of scenery was a larger-than-life paper-spike, with sheets of paper arranged to create a tree – the plane tree to which Xerxes sings the opera’s opening – and most famous – number, ‘Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fu’. This striking, beautiful and inventive idea was a brilliant image with which to begin the opera – but as the action unfolded, and the characters took it in turn to push the ‘tree’ to one part of the stage after another (usually while singing, thus blurring any idea that different settings were intended by different positions of the spike), this clarity was replaced with confusion and, before long, amusement, on the part of the audience.

Thanks goodness for the (on the whole) clear diction and movement of the singers, aided by the intimacy of the Gatehouse theatre, on which my comprehension of the story relied, not having managed to remember all the plot’s complexities for the entirety of the long first half.

The strong cast was headed by the remarkable American soprano Paul Bork (below), whose portrayal of all the aspects of Xerxes’ character – particularly his crippling paranoia and jealousy – was hugely convincing, and whose voice could both sear through Handel’s coloratura writing and turn in an instant to tender caressing. This is a voice I’d like to hear a lot more of.

Mezzo-soprano Cathy Bell’s portrayal of Arsamenes was an ideal foil to the extravagant, extrovert Xerxes – steady, thoughtful, and considered in action, and with a rich, full sound that blended well with and underpinned the higher parts of Xerxes and Romilda, but which was thrilling to hear as a solo instrument. Her sparring with Bork in their recitatives was lively, intelligent singing – in a way this political confrontation between Xerxes and Arsamenes is the most important relationship in the opera, rather than that of any pair of lovers: the sensible, level-headed world-view of the latter confronts and eventually overcomes the unpredictable eccentricity of the former.

Soprano Madeleine Holmes certainly has all the verve and vocal agility for the part of Romilda, a feisty Handel heroine – if her vibrato sometimes obscured her diction, clarity was quickly restored by her vivid, characterful acting, most noticeably in her interactions with Xerxes and with her sister Atalanta. The latter, sung by Sophie Pullen, is perhaps the most complex character in the opera to pull off, but her quiet scheming was clearly portrayed from the start, Pullen’s movements making her the one figure on stage that I felt I coujldn’t take my eyes off.

Madeleine Sexton, as Amastris, was rather short-changed in having a beautiful voice in a minor, constraining role with few arias; while bass James Schouten (below) provided forthrightly-sung buffo humour in the factotum role of Elviro, being sent hither and thither by all and sundry to carry out all sorts of menial tasks.

The seven-strong orchestra was led for this one evening by assistant musical director Jonathon Heyward, in the absence of musical director Richard Hetherington – he functioned solely as conductor (whereas Hetherington has been directing from the harpsichord), and as a result I felt that his having to impart rhythmic impulse (always so vital in Handel) solely via his gestures sometimes led to unsteadiness in the band, most noticeably when establishing tempos at the beginning of arias. But Heyward remained sensitive throughout to the balance between orchestra and stage (so important in a venue like the Gatehouse, where the ensemble is at one side of the stage rather than hidden in a pit), and clearly relished the antiphonal play between the orchestra and the singers.

Adrian Horsewood