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A Light-hearted Approach

Handel's 'Agrippina' at English National Opera,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


David McVicar seems to have developed into the preferred director for producing Handel operas. Having done Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne and Alcina for English National Opera, he has now reworked his production of Agrippina, originally from Brussels, for ENO. Whilst purists might find aspects of his productions to complain about, there is no doubt that McVicar knows how to structure opera seria so as to make it enjoyable for the average opera goer.

It helps that McVicar understands how the conventions of opera seria work. But more importantly he directs the musical score not just the libretto, an important distinction in this most stylised of genres. I have seen too many productions of Handel operas where the director seems to have based his production on his reading of the libretto rather than listening to the music.

Agrippina is ideal for McVicar's light-hearted approach. The libretto is essentially a comedy that owes a significant debt to earlier pre-Metastasio styles of opera and at times veers close to farce. But it is excellently constructed and Handel never looks down on his characters -- they are realised with a three-dimensional humanity which resembles Mozart's approach to his Da Ponte comedies. Essentially, Handel never writes funny music, but the plotting of his characters and the situations they get into mean that we can't help but laugh.

It was a long evening, almost four hours running time with just one interval -- Handel's three acts re-structured to two, with the interval part way through Act 2. It says much for McVicar's skill that this time seemed to pass effortlessly and enjoyably. The set consisted of a group of mammoth columns, almost like piers to a huge aqueduct, which moved easily around the stage, as well as containing such items as Poppea's closets. The only other significant piece of scenery was a towering staircase with a throne at the top. Using these, plus backdrops and occasional props, McVicar and his designer John McFarlane enabled the scenes to flow seamlessly into each other without a break. Nothing kills an opera like this as much as interminable waits for scene changes. Only very occasionally did McVicar and McFarlane have to resort to the old stand-by of a drop curtain to enable a smooth transition between scenes.

On Saturday 10 February 2007, two singers were announced as being ill. ENO Young Artist Anne Marie Gibbons replaced Christine Rice as Nerone and Sarah Connolly sang despite being ill.

Connolly's Agrippina was a tour-de-force and her illness was not apparent. Connolly played Agrippina as a sexily seductive schemer, frequently in skimpy costumes and killer heels. Her singing of the Handelian vocal line was just as consummate as her Giulio Cesare, but suitably softened and made more alluring. She looked good in the 80s style costumes and sounded equally stunning.

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Copyright © 15 February 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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