English Touring Opera – Handel’s Agrippina with Paula Sides, Esme Bronwen-Smith & Hilary Cronin – directed by James Conway; conducted by Leo Duarte

Agrippina – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani [sung to an English translation by James Conway with English paraphrases]

Claudio – Edward Hawkins
Agrippina – Paula Sides
Nerone – Esme Bronwen-Smith
Ottone – Tim Morgan
Poppea – Hilary Cronin
Narciso – Matt Paine
Pallante – Jerome Knox
Lesbo – Edward Jowle

The Old Street Band
Leo Duarte

James Conway – Director
Bradley Travis – Revival Director
Samal Blak – Set & Costume Designer
Rebecca van Beeck – Revival Curator
Julie Osman – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 7 October, 2022
Venue: Hackney Empire, London

With Agrippina (1709) Handel came of age as a composer of opera. Its zippy succession of often concise numbers, memorably evoking the characters and their wiles through music, makes it a good place for those unfamiliar with Handel’s operatic output to start. Its wry retelling of how Nero came to power in ancient Rome through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina, make it a more irresistible narrative than the more formal, straightlaced plots and structure of nearly every opera seria Handel wrote afterwards. Additionally, it is of interest insofar as its librettist, Vincenzo Grimani, seems to have intended it to be a sort of prequel to Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.

James Conway’s production evidently also means to make the work approachable, with its sometimes-complicated plot as the characters play each other off to fulfil their (usually sordid) ambitions. This episode from Roman history, which many will be familiar with from I, Claudius, is treated less as a sinister political thriller than a bawdy comedy, more like Up Pompeii! perhaps. Certain risqué gestures (an obscene codpiece which Claudio sports as he makes amorous advances to Poppea, and fetishises her foot and shoe) and turns of phrase in the English translation of the libretto hark back to ribald Restoration drama. The costumes evoke that era too, with a few modifications (Poppea’s toga-like dress hints at the Roman world, though the courtier Narciso is inexplicably dressed in a Jacobean black with a white ruff – the cast list for this production describes him as an ecclesiastic).

The almost abstract set simply consists of a circular revolving platform, divided into three sections, which helpfully realises in visual form the shifting seats or zones of power in which the characters are variously ensconced and devise their schemes, as their moral or emotional levers over others wax and wane in quick succession. The cast’s adept acting ensures that the choreography remains correspondingly energetic and witty.

They also prove musically idiosyncratic, aiding comprehension of the narrative’s twists and turns, even if the actual diction of the English text is not always absolutely clear, and the audience has to rely on paraphrases of that in the surtitles, rather than a word-for-word rendering, such that many subtleties of the drama are easily missed. Paula Sides is generally in crisp control of the title part, coolly developing her plans for Nero’s ascent to power. Occasionally some notes go awry within the overall ensemble with the orchestra, but otherwise she cracks magnificently in the music of the famous scena ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’ as the character battles mental doubts and anxiety about her scheme (rather than guilt, as the English paraphrase for the audience incorrectly suggests). Edward Hawkins is not quite the buffoon as Claudio, but renders the part with knowing irony, capturing something of his haplessness and naivete. Esme Bronwen-Smith’s Nerone is artfully simple and unaffected, until her accomplished display of virtuosity in ‘Come nube che fugge dal vento’ (the aria that was later adapted by Handel as the more famous ‘Vivi tiranno’ in Rodelinda).

Just as Poppea uses her physical charms to pursue her desires, so Hilary Cronin’s performance exudes an appropriately overt sensuality and emotiveness. By contrast Tim Morgan is a fairly demure Ottone but delivers his aria of lamentation ‘Voi che udite’, after being falsely accused of betraying Claudio, with raw intensity, even if under strain he is not quite in control of all the notes and their intonation, relative to the accompanying mournful oboe line. Matt Paine and Jerome Knox ably convey the sycophantic natures of the courtiers Narciso and Pallante, the former notably oleaginous in Paine’s acidulously effective countertenor singing.

Leo Duarte and The Old Street Band sustain a performance of great liveliness throughout, matching the fast pace of the stage action. Duarte’s expressive conducting (even resulting in his baton ricocheting from his stand onto the stage during Ottone’s aforementioned number) ensures an animated and well-articulated account of the score, confirming him as one of the most engaged and inspirational interpreters of Handel today. Not all committed Handelians may appreciate this tongue-in-cheek production of an early masterpiece by the composer.

But it is good fun, playing up the elements of irony and satire that often featured in operas on the Venetian stage (though no characters in drag in this work), but which Handel rarely had the chance to exploit again in his career.Further performances to November 12 at various venues around England

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