Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Agrippina - English National Opera

Blind Delius, craggy craniumed Sibelius,, bewildered-looking Bruckner, retired Colonel Elgar, bewigged Bach and that blind old pro Händel - natural that we know them from their old age when artists were commissioned or friends got their Kodaks out. O.K., they were all young once; in his early twenties George Frideric Händel (let's give him his rightful umlaut for once) left his north German homeland for a spell in Italy. He knew his craft so well and had developed such a gift for melody and fluency that his first opera Rodrigo was a success and his second, Agrippina had a run of twenty-seven consecutive nights in Venice. Not bad for a gay blade of a Protestant in a Catholic country - who would never have got a post there because of the religious angle.

"Damn braces: bless relaxes". Religious music favours the first part of Blake's apophthegm,, opera the second, bracing damns are surefire in opera. "She had all the assets except goodness" said Tacitus of Poppea. That lady is as prominent in this opera as is the title-role one. Grip (for short) spins deceit as she tries to propel her son Nerone to the throne whose physical presence dominates the heavy scenery in this producion of Agrippina which I saw on March 1 in the London Coliseum production by David McVicar given by English National Opera (penultimate performance of the run but it will be back - old GFH is popular these days, even with a score of arias that always repeat the A of an ABA form, little chorus work and a length of four hours).

The performance contained swings and roundabouts, metaphorically. In Händel's day the voices, research, logic and guesswork tells us, would have had more personality than present-day ones. At the Coli the whole cast sang musically, accurately and were thoroughly rehearsed and prepared, getting tnrough fiendishly difficult passage work with extremes of vocal range but the voices lacked that elusive quality of character which enabled us to say within three notes, oh, that's Sutherland or Vickers or Callas or Gobbi. But, as I say, we have accuracy, style and enthusiasm, plus pacing and commitment under the Dutch conducter Daniel Reuss, well known abroad and now welcome here.

Production. The general attitude these days to 18th century opera - to which David Mc Vicar obviously subscribes - is: pep it up,boys, look lively and show a leg. The singers showed that they could act, they showed legs (Poppea in her undies) they sang most competently and the conductor kept them on the move, the strings played their lovely intros well and four hours passed in a flash.

Sarah Connolly as Agrippina

What shockers the characters are, regular showers! All except Claudius (remember your Robert Graves ? Him, Claudius, is weak, stutters but he is clean, well he prefers Pop (for short) to Grip,but who can blame him?). Castration not being the order of the day, we have two, no three coutertenors, including Nerone (when he gets to the top of the thirty-nine steps he will soon become that wicked Nero who famously combined fiddling with fireworks) finely played as a slouching yob by Christine Rice and there's the head general, hard done by Ottone well sung by Reno Troilus.

A word about the un-named sign interpreter. This one was quite unobtrusive, graceful and obviously knew the whole, opera by heart. Unfortunately I missed the moment when she has to sign-interpret a line in Amanda Holden's translation which is "Fucketty-fuck-fuck".

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