Agrippina [Sung in an English translation by Amanda Holden]

Agrippina – Sarah Connolly
Claudio – Brindley Sherratt
Nerone – Christine Rice
Poppea – Lucy Crowe
Ottone – Reno Troilus
Pallante – Henry Waddington
Narciso – Stephen Wallace
Lesbo – Richard Suart

Orchestra of English National Opera
Daniel Reuss

David McVicar – Director
Lee Blakeley – Assistant Director
John Macfarlane – Designs
Paule Constable – Lighting
Andrew George – Choreography

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 5 February, 2007
Venue: The Coliseum, London

English National Opera has a happy recent history of excellent Handel productions that have been revived successfully and often, some of them by David McVicar.

This production of “Agrippina”, one of Handel’s early successes, although not exactly new (it was originally mounted at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in 2000), should prove attractive to the regular audience and to the newcomer. It seems that McVicar was not around all the time to work with the strong cast, which includes some very distinguished young Handelians. McVicar directed the first half of the rehearsal period as he was also scheduled to direct a ‘Ring’ in Strasbourg, and he and the assistant director, Lee Blakeley, have inspired a tightly organised, fast-paced and theatrical show.

Some now rather familiar McVicar tics are much in evidence – the slick stylised choreography, more than a whiff of camp – but there is also the usual arresting and true to the music stage-play to balance. However, one always feels with McVicar, that he does listen to the music and what one sees on stage is always true to the piece. Add to this an evidently singable, modern and witty translation by Amanda Holden and the orchestra on fine fettle and one could say that all the ingredients were in place.

Of the cast it is the three ladies who rather dominate the evening – all three providing an orgy of superb singing and some individual and strong dramatic realisations of their multi-faceted roles. That they probably have all the best arias probably helps them, but Sarah Connolly’s luscious and agile voiced Agrippina holds the stage from the start.

Her manipulative character was delineated both musically and physically at the outset setting the story in motion. Her long Act Two scena as the character further schemes how to place her son on the throne was thrillingly sung, although at the start of it she was perhaps placed too far back on the stage for the first few lines to be totally arresting. Like the rest of the cast, she is also adept at singing the recitative with real colour and flair keeping the audience interested in the motivation of the characters in the drama. That she is tall also assisted her to dominate any scene she was in to great effect – a marvellous assumption.

Christine Rice also impressed. She dramatised Nero’s youthful wilfulness to life, fitting in with the modernising aspect of the production which required her to be a rich dysfunctional “yooff” and a drug abuser to boot, coming to terms with potential power and also his sexual awakening. It was a very witty portrayal, but at the same time Rice managed to evince a little sympathy for the character. She was given some of the best lines of Holden’s translation, including some recitative expletives and made the most of them all. It was also very well and beautifully sung, even if in the first aria some of the words were a little indistinct. Her final aria, requiring vocal agility and long-breathed legato alternately, was absolutely secure, sung as it was whilst the character was snorting cocaine. Perhaps the role only just lies within her range at the top of the voice, but this was a revelation of her vocal and dramatic abilities.

Lucy Crowe’s Poppea, whether playing the victim or the furious woman scorned was also a treasurable performance. She has some of the most florid music of all to sing and carried of these tricky arias, and their accompanying stage business, with technical aplomb. She looked marvellous and the character’s difficult predicaments were again wittily but movingly enacted. Her slower arias were also simply and affectingly sung.

The men were not quite on this level, and although Handel gives some of the lower voices rather more to do than in some of his works the performers did not take all the opportunities offered. Brindley Sherratt’s Claudio was well enough acted, but at the start of the evening he seemed not to be fully warmed up – a few low notes disappearing, and the tone somewhat loose. Later on he found more focus, but his more energetic music was sung with far too many aspirates. In contrast, Henry Waddington, in the smaller role of Pallante, demonstrated how the more rapid passagework can be sung with both agility and legato.

The two countertenors made varying impressions also. Reno Troilus was securely voiced in a pleasing and clear tone, occasionally a little under-powered, but unfailingly musical. His long and mournful lament in the second act was extremely well sung. His character is probably the most serious, and he interacted with the other singers well, and his dancing was also agile and stylish. Stephen Wallace’s Narciso was less secure vocally and occasionally broke into a low chest voice, although this was often used for dramatic effect. As always Richard Suart made his strong stage-presence felt, even though he is afforded little to do. Alas, his one short aria was sung in rather gravely tone and not entirely devoid of intonation problems.

The other stars of the evening were the orchestral players who, under Daniel Reuss’s sympathetic and sprightly conducting, delivered an idiomatic and always exciting account of Handel’s score. The continuo was a joy to hear in all its variety, and some of the woodwind playing – the oboe in particular – was exquisite. Mention should be made of the exhilarating harpsichord playing of Martin Pacey and Stephen Higgins.

Well worth catching!

  • Performances on February 8, 15, 21, 23 & March 1 at 6.30, and February 10, 17 & March 3 at 5.30
  • Box Office: 0870 145 0200
  • English National Opera

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