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As her son, Anne Marie Gibbons showed few signs of uncertainty on her assumption of the brattish Nerone. Gibbons made a pretty convincing badly behaved youth, complete with losing her trousers, and had a confident way with Handel's vocal line. Amanda Holden's translation was pretty colloquial and free, complete with a few F-words for Nerone; these felt more like a stunt and didn't really contribute anything to Gibbons' characterisation. It's not the first time that Nerone has been portrayed thus -- I seem to remember a similar characterisation in Christian Curnyn's performance of the opera with his Early Opera Group at St John's Smith Square. But the style of clothing and behaviour are a considerable help to the singer in creating a masculine persona.
Though Gibbons' achievement was impressive, for me the other stand-out performance of the evening was Lucy Crowe's Poppea. McVicar took every advantage of Crowe's fine figure -- she spent quite a lot of time scantily clad. But Crowe also has a lovely soprano voice and a sparkling way with Handelian fioriture. Winton Dean described Poppea as the first of Handel's 'sex kitten' roles, and this was certainly true here. We might not trust Poppea, but when Handel's fabulous music is sung as well as this, she can certainly charm.
Agrippina's husband, the Emperor Claudio, is a bit of a pompous bore, and Poppea deliberately makes him look foolish. Brindley Sherratt did his best with what he was given and sang well, even though he often had to speak in platitudes.
The emotional centre of the opera should be Ottone -- he is the only person who is not actively scheming, and Handel gives him some killer arias. Here, though, McVicar and ENO's casting director seem to have conspired against us a little. Counter-tenor Reno Troilus is slight of frame and with dyed blond hair and a white soldier's outfit. It was unfortunate that he looked alarmingly like Jean-Claude Gaultier. But, more importantly, Troilus's voice is on the small side and could not muster the warmth and emotional power needed for Ottone's arias. Perhaps in a smaller house he could have brought this off, and his singing was certainly stylish. But compared to the power-house performances of Connolly, Crowe and Gibbons, Troilus seemed underpowered and emotionally light-weight; he didn't convince us that he was really feeling troubled.
The supporting roles were well taken. Stephen Wallace and Henry Waddington were nicely differentiated as the plotters Narcissus and Pallas. Richard Suart contributed a dry voiced, but dryly humorous performance as the servant Lesbo.
Copyright © 15 February 2007
Robert Hugill, London UK