Agrippina, Coliseum, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

The devil wears shoulder pads
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For a contemporary audience, the masks of comedy and tragedy are so readily interchangeable in Handel's opera that who wears which - and when - is probably the key factor in staging them. David McVicar's contentious but brave and ultimately satisfying reading of Agrippina at the English National Opera plays a dangerous game.

From a rudely colloquial English translation by Amanda Holden (the f-word much in evidence), he and designer John Macfarlane have recast this Dynasty-like tale of power-play and sexual shenanigans among the amoral ruling classes of the Roman Empire as a latter-day sleaze-fest.

There are archetypes here we recognise. We shall know them by their shoulder pads. Duplicity is sung to many tunes, bathos rubs shoulders with pathos. It's a precipitous balance; but then this is a precipitous score, one of Handel's most daring and dazzling. And doesn't McVicar just know it.

A front cloth depicting the mythical Romulus and his twin brother Remus suckling on the she-wolf greets us. As it rises we discover another she-wolf, Agrippina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudio, lounging nonchalantly on an unlabelled tomb. There are other characters and other tombs. It's as though they are all waiting for immortality.

Amid a series of huge black marble pillars is set a precipitous golden staircase leading to an empty throne. Claudio is thought dead. Agrippina's plan is for her malleable, coke-sniffing son Nero to take his place. He's envisaged as a leather-clad airhead whom you wouldn't trust with a guitar, let alone an empire. And he's played with terrific abandon by an unrecognisable Christine Rice.

His mother, the riveting Sarah Connolly, is used to getting exactly what she wants and is not averse to crushing her rivals by turning up in the same designer frock. Early on in the proceedings she does this to Poppea. You get the picture.

I have to say that there were times during the first half of this show where McVicar's borderline vulgarity sat uneasily with any notion of opera seria. He all but crossed the line into all-out parody. But that's the point. It's a precarious balancing act.

McVicar always listens to the music and, with the boldest projection of the score's jocularity and vitality coming from the pit (Daniel Reuss and the ENO orchestra on incisive form), there was a choreographic relish about the proceedings that made the farcical plotting seem less of a stretch and the sudden descents into genuine pathos all the more startling.

To plunge from the maniacally comedic scene of Poppea on a bender in some smart drinking club - replete with resident chain-smoking harpsichordist - into Agrippina's great "destiny" scena was almost foolhardily bold. But Handel's range is extraordinary and McVicar embraces it.

That scena is typical of Handel's unprecedented daring in this score. Barely accompanied, its harmonic starkness reaches into the blackness of an uncertain future. Connolly's fearful concentration, vocally and physically, was in brilliant contrast to the lightly worn, wily coloratura of her earlier scheming.

Then there was Lucy Crowe's vampish Poppea, her fabulously uninhibited vocals refusing to draw any distinction between pleasure and pain. And will I ever again be able to hear Nero's vengeance aria without picturing Rice, her head rearing up in a cloud of cocaine to rip like a spitfire into the vocal histrionics? Hers is a conspicuously special voice at the service of a special talent.

So the women in McVicar's Dynasty ruled - don't they always. Reno Troilus worked hard to steal some limelight as the lovelorn Otho but his bantamweight countertenor, though useful, was hardly charismatic. Brindley Sherratt (Claudio) was. But then he's a bass and basses this good command authority.

In they end they all return to their tombs, now duly engraved with their names. Flowers are brought. The front cloth descends - but on it, the she-wolf is dead. Another Dynasty is dust. McVicar has made his case.

In rep to 3 March (08701 450 200)

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