English National Opera

The Coliseum, 1 March 2007 4 stars


ENO fielded an excellent cast for this new production of Agrippina. Indeed, not one singer let the side down in Handel's early masterpiece. With such team work ENO can look forward to further great things to come.

The most innovative part of the production is director David McVicar's (and choreographer Andrew George's) daring take on Handel's tendency towards repetition. Poppea's aria 'I shall punish' includes an extended harpsichord solo. McVicar places the harpsichord player on stage - within the setting of a bar - and presents him, cigarette in mouth, in the 'Play it again, Sam' Humphrey Bogart mode. The irony of repetitions in the harpsichord solo is heightened by repeated movements of jolly (possibly somewhat tipsy) dancers. It was a masterstroke to stage Nero's aria 'Like the cloud that escapes from a tempest' in a drug making scene: the storm-like semiquaver passages of the music lend themselves superbly to the clouds of cocaine on stage.

Poppea's aria of anger ('If someone deranges your heart with disdain') throws semiquavers in abandon: Poppea accompanies this fury of semiquavers by tearing up and throwing away (love?) letters and by stuffing pieces of chocolates into her mouth.

Ottone's 'Laurel wreaths and adulation' has plenty of military fanfare-like triad passages to justify this aria's hilarious military dance routine accompaniment.

McVicar and his choreographer understand Handel at his gentlest too. The love duet between Ottone and Poppea ('No one will ever tear us apart'), in gently rocking 3/8 time, was deeply moving with its simple dance movements.

Agrippina underwent several changes since its first performance, which was probably in early 1710. ENO uses René Jacobs' excellent revised version, completed in 2000. As the programme notes for the production do not tackle the issue of edition, mention must be made of some of Jacobs' choices. He includes the remarkable 'I shall punish' aria (with the extended harpsichord solo) which was added to the opera sometime after its premiere but which is not included in traditional editions. Other Handel arias written by Handel for Agrippina at various stages and now added by Jacobs include Claudio's simple love song 'Let me gaze on your eyes for ever', Poppea's beautiful 'One who's loving only longs to be adored' and her 'Escape my darling'.

This was the penultimate performance in the Agrippina run and plenty has been written elsewhere about the stellar cast. But, according to my knowledge, none of the reviews mentioned the impressive Humphrey Bogart-like stage appearance (as well as the excellent harpsichord playing) of ENO music staff member Stephen Higgins. Praise is due to the oboe soloist in Agrippina's 'I shall battle through the tempest' and to the discreet but supportive continuo playing of the theorbos and harpsichords. The playing of the continuo cellist was problematic: his modern cello and his modern style of playing was a mismatch to the rest of the authentic continuo group. On the other hand, we had some beautiful baroque style violin solo playing from Janice Graham, the leader of the ENO orchestra.

Some of conductor Daniel Reuss' tempi felt, at least to this pair of ears, rushed, but - if a pun may be allowed - many roads lead to (Agrippina's) Rome.

By Agnes Kory