Britten Theatre, London
Classical review: Agrippina, English Touring Opera
Wednesday 09 October 2013
“Agrippina” was Handel’s first masterpiece, and its satirical tone and pervasive sexual innuendo were calculated to please Venetians at carnival-time, rather than to cater for the sober tastes of Hanoverian London. Labyrinthine is too mild a word for the complexity of its plot, which turns on the machinations by Agrippina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, to ensure her son Nero’s accession to the throne. Engineering (as she imagines) her husband’s demise, playing two enemies off against each other while gunning for a third and laying traps for a fourth, the intrigue she weaves makes the brain reel. Meanwhile young Poppea, the love-interest for every male in sight, sets up a manipulative web of her own. Heroic Ottone, who finally gets his girl when everyone else has been neutralised, is the only character who doesn’t get mocked for duplicity and general bad behaviour.
This is broad comedy, but with touches of the sublime. The arias are mostly short but exquisitely turned, and if some of them sound familiar, that’s because Handel was a dedicated recycler, but with music of this quality who could complain? Certainly no one who catches James Conway’s inspired production, in which the sight-gags come thick and fast, and in which an ensemble performance of enormous wit and zest is supported by an ingenious rotating set plus marvellous costumes by designer Samal Blak, and by Julie Osman’s perfectly-judged choreography. Conway’s rhyming translation works a treat, and the period-instrument Old Street Band under Jonathan Peter Kenny are right inside the idiom. In this opera it’s pre-eminently the music which tells the story and delineates character, and every twist of the dramatic kaleidoscope has an assured feel.
We first encounter Gillian Webster’s gutsy Agrippina as she plots on a map her husband’s murder, and when she’s joined by countertenor Jake Arditti’s debauched and pampered Nero we enter a world where morbid sexuality and high fantasy reach their apotheosis. It’s quite in keeping to find in Luke D Williams’s Lesbo a mincingly balletic Mercury-figure with a golden baritone sound, and in countertenor Russell Harcourt’s fawning Narciso a desiccated cleric who sings like a nightingale. There are no weak links in this talented team of performers – everyone moves as adroitly as they sing – but if there’s one character who holds all the others (plus the audience) helplessly in thrall, it’s soprano Paula Sides as an irresistible and captivatingly-sung Poppea.
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Germanwings plane crash: Video shows co-pilot Andreas Lubitz learning to fly as a teenager
- 2 Germanwings crash: Captain of doomed plane was only 'on board because he changed job to spend more time with his children'
- 3 Ohio Democrat Teresa Fedor speaks out during abortion debate to reveal she has been raped – and is interrupted by laughter from Republicans
- 4 Germanwings plane crash: Transcript reveals passengers 'screamed for over five minutes' before plane crashed into mountain
- 5 Germanwings crash: 'Andreas Lubitz planned to marry pregnant girlfriend', claims German report
Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams to make special guest appearance in Doctor Who
Cassetteboy joins forces with Russell Brand for Emperor's New Clothes film
Poldark, review: Demelza’s insouciance is almost as impressive as Ross’ pecs
Jay Z launches streaming service Tidal with help from Kanye West, Rihanna and Coldplay
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew