The ENO’s first ever Agrippina triumphantly takes its place in the company’s tradition of witty and inventive productions of Handel’s operas.
For those who enjoyed David McVicar‘s Guilio Cesare, at Glyndebourne, at the Proms two years ago or now on DVD, this is much of the same; a beautifully sung and hugely entertaining extravaganza, although with so much emphasis on comedy, always a divider rather than a leveller of public opinion, it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The outstanding cast is led flamboyantly by Sarah Connolly as Agrippina, freed from the male attire we are so used to seeing her in. In a role that suits her voice better than Cesare in the earlier production, she is both very funny and sexy. No man (or woman) is safe from her manipulations, political and manual. She visibly pants at the sight of a parade of soldiers, ensuring they remain erect as she inspects them.
Lucy Crowe is nothing short of a revelation as Poppea. This is a stunning debut, sweetly and alluringly sung and beautifully acted. The third female lead is Christine Rice, hilarious and completely believable as the spotty teenager, Nerone (a fiddler indeed), who aspires to the throne out of childish glee and on the insistence of the pushiest of pushy mothers.
The long-delayed entrance of the Emperor Claudio, a terrific Brindley Sherratt, is a highlight of the night, a beautiful aria with gorgeous solo cello accompaniment (a feature that runs throughout the work). There’s not much nobility to these characters, though, when you see an Emperor with his trousers round his ankles and an Empress who wouldn’t be out of place in Footballer’s Wives. They do gain in gravitas in the second half and Agrippina’s “Obsession” aria, alternately plaintive and tempestuous, is very moving and gloriously sung by Connolly.
Amanda Holden‘s new translation of the libretto is witty and sharp with not a few surprises. Irony runs through the work and this production plays it to the hilt. That’s when it’s not going for outright laughs, which keep coming throughout the evening, the inventiveness never letting up. Reminiscent of the amazing Bollywood numbers from McVicar’s Guilio Cesare, there’s a wonderfully entertaining dance sequence for Ottone (counter-tenor Reno Troilus) and two men in uniform. It’s all the more effective for the fact that they are clearly not dancers but move dutifully and exactly how you’d expect soldiers to.
Maybe the comedy is overdone a tad at times. There’s an ingenious all-singing and dancing sequence in the second half set in a nightclub, where McVicar pushes the limits of relevance as far as they’ll go, and for a while threatens to distract us from the plot. It’s so beautifully done, though, you can’t help just looking on in wonder.
The work ends with the usual roundings up and bringings to account but we’re not sure that justice has been done. As Nerone, the newly proclaimed Caesar, climbs John Macfarlane‘s huge golden staircase to take the longed-for throne, he takes imaginary potshots at all the other characters, a hint of what the mean fiddler’s reign will be.
Considering the relative obscurity of this early work, Agrippina is musically distinguished with wonderful tune after tune. In the pit, Daniel Reuss leads a crisp and fresh account of the score, with tempi very much on the brisk side. Any minor shortcomings in the solo work are swept aside in the exuberance of the overall playing, which perfectly matches the antics on the stage.
At just short of four hours, this is a long but constantly rewarding evening and a splendid first new production of the year for the company. In contrast, David McVicar’s beautiful and stately production of La Clemenza di Tito returns in June. Miss either at your peril.