David McVicar's production of Agrippina, first seen at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2000 and now recreated for English National Opera by McVicar and his associate director, Lee Blakeley, owes much to the glory days of Sex and The City, before the four central characters were disarmed by cancer, childbirth, and true love. Though the programme is heavy with head-shots of Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Madam Mao, Cherie Blair, and Indira Ghandhi, only one of its monstrous regiment of political pin-ups is key to the production: Imelda Marcos, Queen of Shoes.
Whether primed for the cameras in sunglasses and a skirt-suit, blowsy in black negligée, or triumphant in a copy of her young rival's evening dress, Sarah Connolly's Agrippina sports a shameless succession of killer heels: black, strappy, and laced with little chains. One could mock a production that credits the shoe-boxes, though not the shoes, to Manolo Blahnik, yawn at the predictable plethora of erection gags, raise an eyebrow at the portrayal of Nerone (Christine Rice) as the type of teenager who'd shoot his classmates with a crossbow for fun, and justifiably complain that some of the set-pieces and dance routines work at the expense of Handel's music, but you cannot fault McVicar's attention to detail. Take the camp choreography out of his Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne and there would be little left. Take the coke-jokes out of Agrippina, and it would be more powerful.
As designer John Macfarlane's opening image of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus indicates, Agrippina is mother to two monsters: her son Nerone and her rival Poppea (Lucy Crowe), who learns by Agrippina's example and quickly exchanges her barefoot sex-bunny look for the sharp suit and even sharper shoes of a predator. Poppea's psychological development, traced through the rapid succession of brilliant arias and arioso passages that display her materialism, her naivety, and her eventual resolution to play dirty, is one of the most startling aspects of this score, written when Handel was in the first flourish of genius. Another is the belated revelation of Agrippina's vulnerability in Act III. For the right female leads, which ENO has, it is an extraordinary showcase, and the uninhibited vocal and dramatic virtuosity of Connolly, Crowe and Rice make this a production that even those who are tired of irony should relish.
Among the male singers, only Brindley Sherratt (Claudio) acquits himself with equal authority. Richard Suart (Lesbo) delivers his recitativo secco sluggishly, Stephen Wallace (Narciso) slips into Hinge and Brackett vocal hand-bagging, Henry Waddington (Pallante) is hard-pressed to manoeuvre his handsome bass at a speed sufficient to the fioritura, while Reno Troilus's voice, like Ottone's character Femme, is attractive but weak. In the pit, Daniel Reuss has encouraged a stylish performance: sharp, vivid, occasionally chaotic. Amanda Holden's translation is at its best when mimicking the language of the period ("Distribute among the poor/Some redundant baubles"), and at its worst when employing the ersatz demotic of a Richard Curtis script ("Fuck, fuckety, fuck, fuck"). Could the less-is-more principle be applied to this and other now-hackneyed neologisms, this is a production I would look forward to seeing again.
When Manchester becomes the gaming capital of Europe, I hope one lucky gambler will donate his winnings to Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. Add last week's performance of the Overtures to Der fliegende Holländer and Die Meistersinger, the Act I Prelude and Good Friday Music of Parsifal, and the Prelude and Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde at the Bridgewater Hall to November's exhilarating concert performance of Act III of Siegfried and it is clear that not only do they want to do a Ring Cycle, they are capable of delivering one of the finest concert performances we are likely to hear in this country.
Watching Elder work with his musicians, I realised how great a proportion of most conductors' time is spent motivating their orchestras to pay attention. With the Hallé, however, this is obviated, as they are sufficiently committed to Elder to concentrate on his interpretation, adapting their admirably healthy sound with ease to the specific atmospheric or stylistic demands of each work. Personally, I'd rather hear a symphony than a succession of musical synopses, but if this is what it takes for Manchester to get its Ring, I'm more than happy to listen.
'Agrippina', Coliseum, London (0870 145 0200) to 3 MarchReuse content