Handel's 'Agrippina' set to grip London audiences

'Agrippina' by Handel opens tomorrow night in London. Tom Rosenthal found it a masterpiece on its first appearance and meets its producer, David McVicar, to discuss sex and power on stage
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It isn't every day that one can legitimately hail a first night without having seen it, but I can do it for David McVicar's production of Handel's Agrippina which opens tomorrow at the Coliseum. The text will be in a new, English version by Amanda Holden and the cast will include Sarah Connolly as Agrippina, Lisa Crowe as Poppaea and Christine Rice as Nero. I know it will be a success not because I have second sight but simply because I saw this production when it first appeared at the Monnaie in Brussels in 2000. It was an unforgettable theatrical experience.

Handel wrote Agrippina as the second, and last, opera of his visit to Italy between 1706 and 1710, Given its glorious music the opera's relative neglect nowadays is surprising, not least because, after its Venice premiere, it was given some 27 successive performances and was Handel's first popular success. In part this was owing to the sheer bloody-minded gutsiness of the libretto by a poet who happened also to be a Cardinal, Vincenzo Grimani.

His cardinal's hat had come from Pope Innocent XII but his principal revenues came from Abbeys in Lombardy and Hungary, granted to him by the Holy Roman Emperor. He was one of the best connected and most powerful men of his time, springing from a Venetian noble family who owned the theatre San Giovanni Grisostomo, (now the Teatro Malibran), where Agrippina was first performed. At a time when pluralism was rife Grimani was also Viceroy of Naples and sufficiently powerful to hold the Pope himself in contempt.

This wordly Prince of the Church gave Handel a wonderfully cynical plot. Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, hears that he has died in a storm at sea. She determines that her son Nero will succeed him. When she and Nero are about to ascend the throne it is announced Ottone rescued Claudius from drowning and has been promised the succession as a reward. Ottone confides to Agrippina that he prefers the love of Poppaea to the glory of the throne. Agrippina immediately tells Poppaea (who loves Ottone) that he has betrayed Poppaea by giving her to Claudius in exchange for the throne.

Plots and counter-plots are hatched and botched, Agrippina carries on lying and plotting but, in the end, Claudius does several hyper-decent things, hands his throne to Nero and gives Poppaea to Ottone in marriage, calling finally on Juno to bless the couple and bring glory to the Roman Empire. So, after all the double dealing, it's a more or less happy ending. Agrippina's last words are "Now that Nero is Emperor I can die happy."

Opera synopses are notoriously fickle and frequently nonsensical. But what transpires on stage in Agrippina is never less than interesting; it may be horrific in its political cynicism but always supremely entertaining. Grimani's plot may not be historically accurate, but is surely true to the wickedness of ancient Rome and the corruption of Nero and his time. With all that historical baggage, Agrippina is a magnificent operatic vehicle and the title role one of the greatest female parts.

Handel's biographer, Jonathan Keates summed her up as the fulcrum of the work: "It is Agrippina who dominates her own opera, a complete study in power, on whom all the other characters depend, but, for all her resourcefulness, gnawed by continuing doubts, obsessively enjoining everyone to 'Follow my advice and you shall prosper', she is revealed in her essential weakness."

Of course, to the impressionable opera-goer the first time one hears and sees a previously unknown work is always the most important. I came to Agrippina seven years ago without the benefit of any previous knowledge. The production was conducted by one of the great Baroque musicians of our time, René Jacobs, and directed by David McVicar at his most revelatory and inventive best. It worked so well because of the close rapport between him and Jacobs and also through the welding together of a set that suggested Imperial Rome and an otherwise completely modern production with the women dressed to kill in Versace.

The effect was so overwhelming that, when I wrote about it, I said: "If there is a better Handel production in the next decade I shall be very agreeably surprised."

I haven't yet had to eat my words although the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare of 2005 with Sarah Connolly as Caesar and Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra gave me pause. But I convinced myself that, while marvellous, it was not better than Agrippina, merely as good. Which is fine, since it was also directed by McVicar.

When I met McVicar last month I asked him why he first chose to direct Agrippina and he replied that directors didn't choose what they did, they did what they were offered.

"Not, surely, directors of your calibre?"

"Seven years ago I wasn't a director of my calibre. I was simply grateful for work. Seven years ago I'd just done a Belgian production of Idomeneo conducted by René Jacobs. He wanted to put together Agrippina for the Monnaie and he was scouting around for a new director, one he hadn't worked with before. We fought like cats and dogs for two months and then we did a really good show."

In an earlier interview McVicar had observed that his aim as a director was to be invisible. Since this could be interpreted as backing into the limelight I asked him to expand on this.

"Well, no one comes just to see my production of the opera. They're coming to see the singers perform the opera. And I think you can tell when the director s getting in the way of the singers communicating the story. My purpose as director is to free the singer. I don't think I'm the most interesting person on the stage."

Which is, from his point of view, fair enough, but a little unconvincing if one considers his Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, of which I've seen productions so excruciatingly boring that I actually did not like the opera. McVicar quite simply brought it to life . He actually has a way with singers who can act and any director who saw him turn the pale Nordic beauty of Ann-Sophie von Otter into the gypsy sex-pot of his Carmen at Glyndebourne is a theatrical and operatic genius.

"It's interesting for me finally to bring Agrippina to England because a lot of people will see continuity between Agrippina and Giulio Cesare because it's there in the stylistic approach illuminating the text and music through movement and the power of sex in the two operas. So when I produce some of those visual jokes I don't feel that any of that is imposed. This comes out of my response to the text and the music so I actually am invisible. I produce the 'business' to illuminate a particular strand of the story, so that the audience doesn't just gloss over it. If you don't keep their brains ticking over, they can so easily just drop off listening to that beautiful music."

In 2001, McVicar declared that: "In the society we live in now, we are very distanced from ourselves, we don't often go to that wild place, and I want theatre to send people into that wild place inside us. without the benefit of alcohol and drugs. That's why I believe in emotion in theatre. I don't think it's anti-intellectual or cheap. It's the most direct way to reach people, particularly through music."

I recalled the scene in the Brussels production when the already very wild and decadent teenage Nero snarfs up industrial quantities of cocaine. I asked McVicar whether there was any ironic connection between his words and the Nero's drug use? "Well, it wasn't a conscious irony. That idea came to me two minutes before I first rehearsed the scene. I actually didn't have a clue what I was going to do. I knew what Nero's emotional state of mind was. I knew that we had to push Nero into a very emotional state. I don't know where that idea came from."

I suggested Al Pacino, going mad with vast piles of coke, in Brian de Palma's Scarface.

"Well, no. I don't think that way. I don't do references like that. It just came and we did it first with sugar. Then, on stage, we used glycerine. But it just came. I gave the sugar to the singer and she got the joke instantly and then we both realised how well it fitted with the music."

Did he anticipate having any problems with the switch to English from the Italian of the Belgian production?

"Amanda Holden's done a really great job on the translation and I believe I helped her a lot, mostly by saying no, that doesn't work. English rhyming structure is just different from Italian rhyming structure and linguistically, artistically the metre in Italian poetry is so different from English metre. It's really hard. I think she's been spectacularly successful in setting in secco recitative and has put a great deal of work into that. Having said that, it does gall me that we have to have those surtitles. [Though operas are performed in English at the Coliseum, surtitles in English are also displayed.] I've encouraged Amanda, where something's clearly untranslatable, to substitute an English joke for an Italian one. It annoys me that the audience can read it above the stage before Sarah Connolly has a chance to sing it."

It will be, for me, a spell-binding experience to discover whether the magic of Brussels nearly seven years ago can be replicated on the Coliseum stage. Only two things are certain; Agrippina is a truly great, wonderfully theatrical opera and David McVicar, barely 40, is Britain's leading opera director of his generation.

Agrippina opens at the Coliseum in London on 5 February (0870 145 0200, www.eno.org)