Classical: Semi-staged, but totally gripping

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The Independent Culture
WHEN OPPORTUNITIES to hear Handel operas were rare, a certain roughness was tolerated for the sake of simply hearing the work. Roughness has its place, of course, but Handel's operas are now seen often enough that one wants more than the piece itself: one wants a performance. That's certainly what Early Opera Company gave in its semi-staged presentation of Agrippina last Saturday. The show lasted four hours, but a full house stayed gripped, moved and amused till the very end.

Not everything was perfect. The programme gave no production credits, but a staging of sorts had been put together: minimal props, everyday costumes, entrances and exits intercut with standard "let's not get too serious about opera seria" byplay. As a result, the singers felt the need to push for laughs. Agrippina, the last opera Handel wrote before leaving Italy for London, is a prequel to Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, with many of the same characters misbehaving as they had in the earlier opera. But it is less cynical (although Curnyn omitted the scene where a dea ex machina descends to set the seal on the happy ending). The characters featured may not redeem them, but they're not as knockabout nasty as they seemed here. Perhaps singing in English might have undercut the tendency to caricature.

Enough carping. Christian Curnyn, EOC's founder and conductor/harpsichordist, had assembled a promising young cast, each singer well versed in Handel and, remarkably, singing from memory. What's more, for most of the show the singers had their backs to Curnyn, but the flow of arias and recitatives was seamlessly idiomatic. If Curnyn gets such assured performances for a single show, what might he do in an opera house? I suspect it won't be long before we find out.

Under Curnyn's direction the 20-strong orchestra played crisply, attending to the singers' needs without letting rhythms slacken, while in the four- piece continuo group there was achingly intense accompaniment from Elizabeth Kenny's theorbo and Katharina Spreckelsen's oboe. Although the acoustic of St John's tends to swallow consonants, it's generally kind to singers, which is helpful when the voices still have room to grow. Some singers make opera seria sound like a beautiful but alien tongue; here the idiom seemed natural, as if this was the only way to make music drama.

There were no weak links in the cast, but the women had the best of it. Despite some exaggerations, Louise Mott's Agrippina was simultaneously a treacherous schemer and a mother with tender feelings, while Sally Bruce- Payne made Ottone moving and moody. Best of all, Geraldine McGreery (Poppea) showed how the tiniest ornamentations can be made to speak volumes. A real performance, then, one to convince you that Handel has a bright future.

Nick Kimberley