03/24/2003 - and 25, 26, 27 March 2003
George Frideric Handel: Agrippina
James Laing (Nerone), Thomas Blunt (Lesbo), Sarah-Jane Davies (Agrippina), James Harrison (Pallante), David Sheringham (Narciso), Jennifer Johnston (Othone), Cora Burggraf (Poppea), Sion Goronwy (Claudio)
London Handel Orchestra
Denys Darlow (conductor), Christopher Cowell (producer)
Handel wrote Agrippina for Venice in late 1709, and it was performed the day after Christmas. Although it is full of people trying to fuck and kill each other, nobody ends up raped or dead, and almost everybody is so nasty that you don't worry much that they're trying. So, a late example of a typical Venetian opera, a fluffier version of Monteverdi's Poppea, to which it forms a fantasy prequel. Agrippina schemes to get her son Nerone made emperor, manipulating her husband, the emperor Claudio, his freedmen, the high-class tart Poppea with whom he is in love (and who he believes to be a virgin), and his loyal general Othone. It might be the funniest thing Handel ever wrote, Semele notwithstanding.
The first performance by the Britten International Opera School opened the London Handel Festival, whose theme this year is Handel's Italian connection. It was thoroughly entertaining, to the extent that the music seemed subsidiary, though it isn't. The often brief arias and pointed recitative, half way between Monteverdi and Handel's London style, give it a rhetorical shape that seems closer to a play. But the sometimes considerable emotional force comes from the music, for example, in Agrippina's scena of doubt and in the virtuous and abused Othone's aria of despair, although much of the rest is set pieces for comic types, thoroughly amusing and delightfully crafted but not going anywhere.
Christopher Cowell's production caught the flip satirical mood perfectly. Rome became a modern dress Ruritania, Claudio a bluff descendant of Queen Victoria and Agrippina a Grande Dame not a million miles from Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Nerone was a randy teenager (cue joke about violin practice and lots of concealed erections), Poppea Jean Harlow or a louche version of Jeanette MacDonald. The freedmen Pallante (butch), Narciso (nerdy) and Lesbo (slimy) were corporate types. At the happy ending, brought about by Claudio's obviously misguided magnanimity, Lesbo presented everybody except the wholesome Othone with enlarged photographs of what they had been up to.
In the first cast (a second cast sings on alternative days), Sarah-Jane Davies was outstanding, and seriously scary, in the title role, and Cora Burggraf was luscious as Poppea. Jennifer Johnston as Othone sang splendidly in a register and characterization that didn't provide much opportunity for showing off. The rest of the cast, as it happened the men, were as adept theatrically but vocally less impressive. James Harrison's bluff Pallante came off pretty well. James Laing's sweet but small voice was right for the ultra-self absorbed Nerone, and he was very funny indeed. The other counter-tenor in this cast, David Sheringham as Narciso, was also hilariously inept, but he was often inaudible. Thomas Blunt as Lesbo had more sneaking around than singing to do, and did it pretty well. A lumbering Sion Goronwy sang rather woofily, and a lot out of the side of his mouth, which might be right for Claudio but is not good for a singer.