Wednesday 9 October 2013

English Touring Opera: Agrippina

Gilllian Webster as Agrippina, English Touring Opera © Robert Workman
Gilllian Webster as Agrippina, © Robert Workman
Handel's Agrippina, written for Venice in 1709, is the composer's first significant opera. Written to a witty libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, it has delighted audiences ever since and fascinated because it is so unlike many of his later, highly serious operas. With its short arias, wit and fast-paced action it has proved popular with opera companies and audiences. English Touring Opera have included the work as the third opera in their Venetian Baroque season. James Conway's production, designed by Samal Blak opened at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on 8 October 2013, with Gillian Webster as Agrippina, Paula Sides as Poppea, Andrew Slater as Claudio, Clint van der Linde as Ottone, Jake Ardittti as Nerone, Luke D Williams as Lesbo, Nicholas Merryweather as Pallante, and Russell Harcourt as Narciso. Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted with the Old Street Band in the pit.

The opera was sung in English in James Conway's new translation. This took inspiration from the wit of the English 17th century writers, with fine results. The surtitles did not project the words as such, but rather arch summaries in a similarly 17th century style which in fact rather came over like those in a silent film.

Blak and Conway seem to have taken the 17th  and early 18th centuries as something of an inspiration for the production. Whereas Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea (also being performed this season) is translated to Stalinist Russia, Handel's witty masterpiece is given period theatre trappings. Blak's set is a fixed box with a revolve in the middle which reveals three different cut away sets. The revolve is hand operated and is surmounted by a statue of cupid. In front there are cod foot-lights.

When the curtain went up we saw Agrippina (Gillian Webster) stood in front of a huge blackboard, chalking calculations and plotting. A nice image. When Webster turned to face us is became apparent that she was wearing a dark blue, period inspired dress but with gold leggings underneath and the most hideous mock 18th century wig. The wig was clearly not an accident, all the character's wigs were ugly (with the exception of that of Paula Sides as Poppea). And the costumes looked more like a random assemblage from a dressing up box than a coherent design. I cannot see the point of casting the mezzo-soprano role of Nerone with a counter-tenor (Jake Arditti) if he is then dressed in the most ridiculously camp outfits which make him look like a woman en-travestie. Arditti also had the misfortune to be wearing the ugliest wig of the evening, one which seemed in danger of coming lose towards the end of the evening.

Make-up was similarly stylised, with most characters wearing heavy white make-up with strong accents, the result was to make Paula Sides look extremely doll like. Poor Luke D Williams as Lesbo was covered in gold paint. The acting style was similarly studied and stylised. I think the intention was to evoke the late 17th and early 18th century theatre, but something seems to have gone wrong in the execution. It looked cheap and ill designed, and the production came over as arch, rather over the top and very camp.

Within this there were some very fine performances. Ironically this was, musically, the least camp performance of the opera that I have come across with the arias put across with seriousness and great vigour. The opera was cut, but the running time was still nearly three hours (including one interval after the first scene of act two) which is a terrific amount of Handel to take on tour.

Webster made a strong Agrippina, she was vividly scheming and rather exaggerated for comic effect. (A complete contrast to Sarah Connolly's sexy vamp at ENO in 2007.) Webster made a strong impression in her opening aria and continued to do so. For the glorious number where she celebrates her triumph, which includes one of Handel's catchiest ritornellos, she discarded her skirt to reveal the gold leggings in all their glory; and her singing was to match. She was also intensely powerful in the Foreboding aria, when she realises that everything was going wrong. The role was written for soprano Margherita Durastanti, who became one of Handel's long-term collaborators. Durastanti, though a soprano, never had a voice which went extravagantly high and the role nowadays is often sung by mezzo-sopranos. Webster nicely reclaimed it for the soprano, and showed a nice focus and depth of tone throughout the range.

Gilllian Webster as Agrippina, Paula Sides as Poppea, English Touring Opera © Robert Workman
Gilllian Webster as Agrippina, Paula Sides as Poppea, © Robert Workman
Agrippina's counterpart in all the opera's scheming is Poppea, a role which Winton Dean described as one of Handel's 'sex-kitten' roles. Paula Sides performance was very funny, and nicely judged, but rather less exuberant than I am used to. There was a stateliness to her presence, both visually and vocally, but one which she counterpoised with her great comic ability, using facial expressions particularly her eyes. The scene in which Claudio (Andrew Slater) first seduced her by making love to Side's foot was a wonderful picture. Vocally this was quite a sober performance. All the technical challenges were finely realised and I enjoyed listening to her singing Handel's arias, but the sound-world seemed a little too close to Handel's more serious roles. What I wanted was a little more elan and fun. Still, with Handel singing as fine as this, I'm probably being unreasonable. There was a directness to her performance which was matched by her delivery, giving a fine clarity to all of Handel's fioriture.

The role of Nerone was written for a soprano castrato and in earlier revivals was played by a mezzo-soprano (Cynthia Buchan played the role when Kent Opera performed Agrippina), but here Jake Arditti joined the ranks of counter-tenors showing that the tessitura of this voice type is steadily rising. Despite costume and make-up, Arditti managed to impress with his command of the vocal line. The character is meant to be youthful and a bit hysterical, so that we forgave any slight un-evenness in the upper register.

In fact, the main male role is not Nerone but Ottone (in fact written for a female contralto). As in Monteverdi's opera, it is Ottone who is the most serious character, the most straightforward and the moral compass for the whole piece. His big aria in act two, after he has been rejected by all the characters in turn, shows Handel in full opera seria mode. Clint Van der Linde made it seem the serious heart of a mad world. He has quite a soft-grained voice which imbued Ottone with melancholy. His scene with Sides' Poppea in the garden when she pretends to be asleep was beautifully realised, the first of many such in Handel.

Andrew Slater used his highly characterful voice to great effect as Claudio, the lecherous old Emperor, and there were times when Slater brought a nice irony to the role which added an extra layer to the complexities of the plot, who was fooling whom.

The three subsidiary roles were each nicely differentiated, so that it was always clear who was whom. I'm not quite sure what Luke D Williams was meant to be as Lesbo, with his gold make-up, pink clothes and stylised movements, but you never mistook him for another character. Williams is another fine comic actor and you felt certain he was having fun with us. Nicholas Merryweather and Russell Harcourt were the courtiers Pallante and Narciso, each manipulated by Agrippina and each a foil for the other.

The performance used a new orchestration by Peter Jones, presumably to make it suitable for the small Old Street Band and fit in with the other two operas in the season. Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny drew  strong, crisp playing from the players and after the first few notes of the overture I forgot to worry about whose orchestration I was listening to. A highly characterful performance, which just missed being too driven, and with some very fine solos from the orchestra.

For all my carping about the production style, this was a very integrated performance and, as we have come to expect from James Conway, the drama came out of the music. I might not have liked the look of the production, but I never felt that Conway and Blak were grafting humour onto Handel's opera in order to keep us entertained. And after all, Agrippina does not need that sort of help, the opera has plenty to entertain us, particularly when combined with the fine singing that ETO's cast gave us.

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