Saturday 8 October 2022

Vivacious drama: English Touring Opera's revival of Handel's Agrippina

Handel: Agrippina - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Agrippina - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Handel: Agrippina; Paula Sides, Edward Hawkins, Esme Bronwen-Smith, Tim Morgan, Hilary Cronin, Matt Paine, Jerome Knox, Edward Jowle, director James Conway/Bradley Travis, conductor Leo Duarte; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed 7 October 2022, (★★★★½)

A wonderful vivid account of Handel's early anti-heroic satirical opera with a fine cast having the time of their lives and vibrant playing in the pit

English Touring Opera's Handel season at Hackney Empire continues with a revival of Handel's Agrippina (seen 7 October). James Conway's production was revived by Bradley Travis with Paula Sides in the title role, Edward Hawkins as Claudio, Esme Bronwen-Smith as Nerone, Tim Morgan as Ottone, Hilary Cronin as Poppea, Matt Paine as Narciso, Jerome Knox as Pallante and Edward Jowle as Lesbo. Leo Duarte conducted the Old Street Band. Designs were by Samal Blak, revived by Rebecca van Beeck, lighting was by Tim van't Hof. The opera was sung in a performing edition by Peter Jones, in an English translation by James Conway.

Premiered in Venice in 1709, Agrippina uses one of the best librettos that Handel ever set (by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani), but the opera is very different to the great sequence of Italian operas that Handel would write for London. Agrippina is pacier, more risque and funnier, there are moments that approach farce and the drama has little of the contorted feel of the London operas. Here there is a narrative flow to the scenes that feels more modern. The London operas are about emotional situations, with plenty of space in the arias, whereas Agrippina is about character and story.

Handel: Agrippina - Paula Sides, Jerome Knox, Esme Bronwen-Smith, Matt Paine - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Agrippina - Paula Sides, Jerome Knox, Esme Bronwen-Smith, Matt Paine - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

The version used by ETO really zipped along and the production was wonderfully pacey, with designs based around a central dais that rotated giving us a fluid flow between scenes, but also plenty of space for the farce. The physical comedy element was low key, unlike some productions I have seen the scene in Poppea's boudoir where her competing lovers, Claudio, Nerone, and Ottone, pop in and out was less about the ludicrousness of the dramatic situation and more about character and what each was saying and overhearing.

That is not to say this was naturalistic. Anything but. There was a distant echo of commedia dell'arte in the look and feel of the individual characters, each was stylised and slightly over emphasised, bringing out the strong character of each.

Paula Sides made a delightful Agrippina, more sympathetic than some, obsessive and scheming yes, but also very powerful in her great scene where she realises that she is in danger. This was one of the moments in the opera when the seriousness of Handel's approach took over. Sides had a wonderfully expressive face, and she used expression for comic purpose and emphasis, the quirk of the lips, a raising of the eyebrow. This was allied to a stylish approach to Handel's music; she amused us and drew us along whilst at the same time we horrified by her scheming.

Handel: Agrippina - Tim Morgan, Hilary Cronin - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Agrippina - Tim Morgan, Hilary Cronin - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Opposing Agrippina was Hilary Cronin's Poppea. Winton Dean would describe Poppea as one of Handel's 'sex kitten' roles and I remember having a discussion with James Conway about how this got Poppea somewhat wrong. Cronin's Poppea was almost as much of a schemer as Agrippina, but this Poppea used her sexuality rather than her wiles. There was a serious core to Cronin's performance, whilst still giving us a woman aware of her sexual power, as well as some stunningly sparkling singing. A delightful performance all round.

Ottone is the only really admirable character in the whole opera, he remains himself throughout and is steadfast when the others are quixotic and changeable. Tim Morgan brought a gentleness to the music, his voice quite soft-grained but resolute. The great scene that concluded Part One, where Ottone is rejected by everyone in turn and then has a superb aria, was very powerful indeed and Morgan brought out the difference in approach between his character and the rest. To a certain extent, Ottone is too nice for his own good, but Morgan held our attention and made him the still quiet centre.

Esme Bronwen-Smith impressed considerably as Nerone. Though dressed in a wonderfully over-the-top manner, Bronwen-Smith successfully conveyed Nerone's youthful masculinity, and also his neediness, his reliance on his mother. Bronwen-Smith had a fine way with Handel's music, singing with a nice edge to the tone. She won First Prize at the 2022 Kathleen Ferrier Awards and has been covering Cherubino at Glyndebourne, and I do hope that we hear her in some more of Handel's operas.

Handel: Agrippina - Jerome Knox, Edward Hawkins, Paula Sides, Matt Paine, Esme Bronwen-Smith, Edward Jowle, Tim Morgan - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Agrippina - Jerome Knox, Edward Hawkins, Paula Sides,
Matt Paine, Esme Bronwen-Smith, Edward Jowle, Tim Morgan -
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

The two conspirators, Narciso (Matt Paine) and Pallante (Jerome Knox) were well differentiated dramatically and musically, and both Paine and Knox had a great time with these characters, providing strong support whilst seeming to have fun. As did Edward Jowle as Lesbo, here he was physically characterised in an outrageous (and rather camp way), emphasising the way that this production had an element of physical theatre, with each character having physical as well as dramatic characteristics.

Thankfully, Edward Hawkins as Claudio was naive rather than a buffoon. He had a certain nobility as Caesar but also a desperate idiocy which came to the fore in the scene in Poppea's boudoir. It isn't a huge role, but Hawkins ensured that Claudio drew our ear and our eye by his simple presence.

In the pit, Leo Duarte (conducting rather than playing the oboe) drew vivid playing from the Old Street Band. This was a performance where the vivacious action on stage was really balance by strongly characterised and stylish playing in the pit. Duarte's highly dramatic conducting style seemed to almost draw the sound physically from the players. The recitative really zipped along, supported by a continuo group including Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord) and Toby Carr (theorbo).

Singing in English, the cast did well with getting the words over and this, combined with the summaries on the surtitles ensured that we could follow the twists and turns of the plot. This piece is in fine contrast to the other two operas in this season, and in this vivid production provides a fine way into Handel's music. Agrippina is on tour with performances in Malvern, Saffron Walden, Buxton and Exeter.

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