Preview: Agrippina, English National Opera, London

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The Independent Culture

We've become used to seeing mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly dominate the Coliseum stage, as often as not in male attire. But when the curtain rises on Agrippina, she will be in a tight black dress and six-inch heels. The title role of Handel's darkly comic opera looks like drawing hitherto unseen qualities from this versatile singer.

David McVicar's production might be set in a Venetian palazzo, but equally it might be in Eighties New York: the female costumes - with their Dynasty-style shoulder pads - are the key. And the character of Agrippina - mother of Nero, and implacable foe of those who stray into her path - is in Connolly's view a corker: "You wouldn't want to meet her on a dark street, because she's lethal. In her dressing table in this production there's a syringe, a pistol, a knife and a phial of poison. She's not to be messed with."

Connolly has read up on her heroine in works by Tacitus and Suetonius, and thinks Handel's opera raises topical issues: "It's always interesting to look at people with power, and at how they use and abuse it. And although there is nobody like Agrippina today, there are people who embody aspects of her. There are aspects of her in Hillary Clinton, and in Anna Wintour, a truly terrifying woman.

"But Agrippina was also beautiful, even in death, and her actions were instinctively symbolic. When she was killed, she instructed her assassins to knife her in the womb, so that in death she could show her son Nero [who was behind the assassination] what she thought of him."

But as the opera portrays her, she was also a comedienne. "She makes the audience her collaborators, with constant asides. 'Look what I'm about to do now - are you ready for this?' she will say - and then she will destroy somebody. It's not coquettish rubbish or playing to the gallery - it's serious. She's performing the function of a Greek chorus."



5 Feb (0870 8401111; www.eno.org)

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