United Kingdom Handel: Agrippina: English Touring Opera, Old Street Band / Jonathan Peter Kenny (conductor), Festival Theatre, Malvern, 24.10.2013. (RJ)
Claudio (Emperor): Andrew Slater
Agrippina (Empress): Gillian Webster
Nerone (her son): Jake Arditti
Ottone (General): Clint van der Linde
Poppea: Paula Sides
Lesbo (servant of Claudio): Luke D Williams
Pallante (courtier, martial): Nicholas Merryweather
Barciso (courtier, ecclesiastical): Russell Harcourt
Director: James Conway
Designer: Samal Blak
Lighting Designer: Ace McCarron
Movement Consultant: Julie Osman
Orchestration: Peter Jones
English Touring Opera is currently celebrating the pivotal role of Venice in the history of opera. It was here that the idea of performing opera for a paying public originated and many of the greatest composers, designers and performers were attracted to the city, including Monteverdi, Cavalli and Handel who are represented on this tour by The Coronation of Poppea, Jason and Agrippina respectvely.
By the time Agrippina received its first performance at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in 1709 (as part of the 1709-10 Carnival season) the 24 year old Handel had already composed three operas, Almira, Rodrigo and Florindo. Agrippina had a libretto by his patron, the Governor General Grimani who knew exactly what the opera-going public wanted, and this work proved especially successful with a run of 27 performances. It has been described as “an anti-heroic satirical comedy” and indeed there is plenty of comedy and little heroism to speak of, though there are some moments of genuine pathos where the laughter stops.
The plot revolves around Agrippina who schemes to put her son Nerone on the throne to succeed the Emperor Claudio as soon as news arrives that the Emperor has lost his life in a naval battle against the British. She enlists a number of people to her cause, but her plot starts to unravel when rumours of her husband’s death turn out to be greatly exaggerated. Claudio reappears having been rescued by his general Ottone whom he has nominated as his successor. The wily Empress then uses all her guile to turn Claudio and the whole court against Ottone – even the object of his affections, Poppea – leading to Claudio’s denunciation of him as a traitor. Poppea, another arch-schemer, has second thoughts about Ottone’s guilt, and, realising she has been used as a pawn by Agrippina, starts to champion his cause. Agrippina finds herself in a deep trouble when her henchmen reveal their part in her conspiracy to gain power, but lying through her teeth she manages to convince Claudio that she has been acting in his best interests all along and the story ends happily. I am glad to report that not a drop of blood is spilt during the action.
Director James Conway has chosen to set the opera not in Roman times but in the 18th century when men powdered their faces as well as their wigs. This is probably just as well, for though the main protagonists are historical figures, the plot teems with historical inaccuracies. The characters, however, are eminently believable, including the imperious Agrippina, sung by Gillian Webster, who will let nothing stand in her path. Wearing a wig reminiscent of Marge Simpson’s hairdo she dominates the action in the first half and refuses to give in even when she realises the game is up. Webster is a consummate singer in a role that encompasses both the soprano and mezzo register, and while she promises the earth to her supporters it is clear from her demeanour that she actually despises them.
If tradition is to believed, all Roman women were all inveterate intriguers and Agrippina meets her match in the flighty and light-headed Poppea. American soprano Paula Sides takes on this role with obvious relish, and proves to be the mistress of the droll facial expression; her words and actions signify one thing, but when she turns to the audience her looks express the complete opposite. Later on when she vows to exonerate Ottone she assumes a more loveable guise, but that does not prevent her from indulging in some high-octane intrigue. Apart from being a versatile actress, Sides has a thrilling voice and I feel sure she will one day be gracing the major opera stages of the world. (Incidentally, I note that she is also playing Poppea in ETO’s Coronation of Poppea, so by the end of the tour she may need therapy!)
Claudio in this opera is far removed from the Claudius of Robert Graves’ novel. For his first appearance he comes on stage picking his nose and then launches into a boring speech boasting how he has conquered the brutish Brits and brought them into the enlightened arena of Europe. (Members of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party who advocate severing Britain’s links with Europe would doubtless be fuming during this passage!) Boorishly played by Andrew Slater, Claudio is also something of a womaniser who longs to get into bed with Poppea, so he does not really engage the audience’s sympathy. Nor does the hopelessly wimpish Nerone – very much a mother’s boy with not an ounce of regal bearing – who was played brilliantly by Jake Arditti. He was so irritating that I felt like throwing something at him, but Arditti’s singing in Nerone’s final substantial aria was absolutely first class, and so I desisted.
The minor characters were also sharply delineated. Lesbo, Claudio’s servant sported an olive skin and had his amusing moments. Of the two courtiers Nicholas Merryweather’s Pallante was the military one – naïve and incompetent – while Russell Harcourt’s Narciso trailed around in clerical garb and one could hardly imagine him in bed with Agrippina. One felt the Empress was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find people to carry out her wishes. But this all added to the general hilarity of the action.
The one character who shone out by dint of his normality and decency was Ottone, superbly portrayed by Clint van der Linde. His despair at being spurned by everyone as expressed in the aria “Show pity for my pain” was a cry from the heart, and could be seen as a foretaste of the great arias Handel would compose in later years. At least, I assume the music was Handel’s own, but there are borrowings from other composers, such as Corelli and Lully, throughout this opera.
The set with its revolving stage was quite adequate for a touring production and allowed for seamless changes of scene. There were no surtitles as such, though they might have helped – but there were explanations that read like the chapter headings of an 18th century English novel. There were some great comic touches as, for instance, when Poppea began to cut up the flowers of a bouquet had been given with secateurs and later dressed up as Diana complete with bow and quiver.
The opera ended with some dancing as if to indicate that the evening’s events should not be taken too seriously. Here I must not forget the fine playing of the Old Street Band and conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny who whipped the action along ensuring that there were no longueurs.
ETO’s autumn tour continues to Crediton, Bath, Harrogate, Durham, Newcastle, Buxton, Sheffield, Warwick, Cambridge and Exeter. See www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.