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S & H Opera Review

G.F. Handel, ‘Agrippina’ London Handel Festival at the Royal College of Music Britten Theatre. Monday March 24th 2003. (ME)

This year’s London Handel Festival is centred around the works composed during his stay in Italy, from 1706 to 1710, and a wonderful array of programmes will unfold from now until May 11th, all of them typical of the style which marks out this Festival, in that they are carefully researched, artfully programmed, entertainingly presented and, above all, they provide new insights into the works of this great composer whose canon is full of sublime pieces which have yet to attain the popularity they deserve. It was an inspired choice to begin the festival with ‘Agrippina,’ since this must surely be the candidate for the title of ‘most unjustly neglected of Handel’s operas’ - this performance was its first revival in a London theatre since 1983, and between its ecstatically received premiere in 1710 and the present day it has been fully staged only a handful of times. Last night’s event was an absolute triumph, for the Festival, for the students of the RCM, for the director and conductor, but most of all, for Handel, whose genius shone out in every scene of this witty, moving and endlessly engrossing work.

The idea of setting the corrupt intrigues of a venal court in the parallel universe of a ‘Hello-style’ society, complete with ‘Fairytale Wedding’ is hardly new, and I’m sure that Christopher Cowell’s urbane production will have given offence to some, but they will be those who are not at home with the level of sophistication which he, thankfully, assumes: it’s all to easy to go for the tricksy, the cheap laughs and the easy trans-society equivalents, but with just two exceptions I found his ‘take’ on the Imperial shenanigans entirely fitting. I’ll get those negatives out of the way first: Ottone’s ‘Don’t cry for me, Agrippina’ made me wince, and the effect of Claudio’s lovely arioso ‘Hold me, my darling’ was ruined by being part of a comic moment – Poppea frantically running to catch him lest he should fall down without his sticks. Apart from those, I loved every minute: it is here, at this intimate little theatre, with mainly young singers and directors, that I have had the most deeply satisfying operatic experiences of the last two seasons, and Londoners have much cause to be grateful for what the RCM is doing here, since it is not just about nurturing youthful talent but providing productions and singing of a quality to rival that offered anywhere else in the capital.

Handel’s inspired choice of Grimani’s libretto allowed him to present characters who, though of grand historical proportions, were also intensely human and fallible: this is not the more heroic treatment favoured by Metastasio – these people certainly do not sound as though they ‘shit marble’ (att. Mozart) and the comic potential of their foibles is given full rein. Corrupt and capricious they may be, but Handel still encourages us to see their human side, however limited, and Cowell’s fast-paced, lightly satirical, witty translation was the perfect vehicle for the singers to convey the composer’s vision. Those singers, a mixture of a few ‘old favourites’ for RCM regulars and some newcomers to the student body, gave performances which were never less than very good but in the case of three of the principals, superb by any standards.

The role of Ottone is one of those areas of Handelian dispute over which aficionados so love to bicker: on the two recordings of the work which I have, the part is taken by Drew Minter and Michael Chance, countertenors both, but Handel in fact wrote the part for a woman and not a castrato, so the casting here of Jennifer Johnston was as authentic as Handelians could desire. It came as no surprise to learn that Jennifer, as well as being a Cambridge prize-winner for Music, practised as a barrister until she decided to take up a place at the RCM, for it is acute intelligence as well as a lovely voice which marks her out as something truly special: here is a voice and a presence which, however youthfully clumsy and unbecomingly costumed, goes straight to the heart – not just because of the touching warmth of her tone quality but her intense musicality, displayed most vividly in ‘Voi che udite il mio lamento’ and ‘Vaghe fonti’ where the clarity of her diction, the eloquence of her phrasing and the unaffected quality of her characterization all gave the greatest pleasure. There were some curmudgeonly grimaces at the bellows of approbation she was given at one point, but any Handelian hearing her pleas of ‘Give me Justice!’ would surely be with those fond bellowers in spirit.

Jennifer was a new discovery for me, but the singer of the part of her rival in love here, the Emperor Claudio, was no stranger to this stage or these pages; Sion Goronwy first impressed me with a beautifully sung and hilariously acted Snug, following that up with an impressive Simone in ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ and equally fine assumptions of Tiresias in ‘Oedipus Rex’ and Sergeant Budd in ‘Albert Herring.’ This is a real Handelian Basso, just made for this kind of music – you can’t help but hear in your imagination what a magnificent job he’d make of ‘Arise, ye subterranean Winds’ or ‘Revenge, Timotheus Cries’ or, most of all, ‘How Willing My Paternal Love,’ since he has it all – sufficient breath control to negotiate the fiendish coloratura, a genuinely sonorous lower register complete with a satisfying low C which he was able to display in a superb ‘Cade il mondo soggiogato’ and stage presence to spare. This immensely (in every sense!) promising bass will sing Christus in the Matthew Passion with Rogers Covey Crump’s Evangelist at St. George’s Hanover Square on Good Friday, and he is certain to be a Christus to remember.

The other suitor for Poppea’s hand was played with equal skill by James Laing, a former Choral Scholar who is in his final year of the BMus. course at the RCM, studying under Robin Blaze. James began singing countertenor whilst still a sixth former at Uppingham, and one can just see how he used that in this role – Cowell sees Nerone as a sort of Prince Harry with perversions, and we got all the naughty public schoolboy mannerisms and assumptions, but used artfully to show the venal nature of this young man. His singing grew in stature as the evening progressed, going from a fairly tentative ‘Col saggio tuo consiglio’ to a superbly confident ‘Come nube fugge dal vento’ – Nerone’s music is often actually higher than Agrippina’s, and James negotiated the vocal stratosphere with some aplomb. Hearing him sing lines like ‘As the whirlwind devours the roses’ you could easily envisage his future career in all the great countertenor roles.

Poppea is presented here as a frothy blonde intent on self-gratification, and she was beautifully sung and vividly characterized by Cora Burggraaf, another ‘RCM stalwart’ who made her first big impression with a vibrant Helena. Cora looked fabulous in her flimsy outfits, and she managed her stage business – including leg-waxing – with élan, whilst giving an accurate, brightly enunciated account of the music, especially in ‘Vaghe perle.’ I was slightly less impressed by the Agrippina of Sarah-Jane Davies, but this is a fiendish role for an experienced soprano, let alone one at the beginning of her career. Sarah-Jane has the measure of the character as the director has conceived her, all faux-maternal solicitude and naked ambition: you could well imagine her saying, as the real Agrippina is reputed to have remarked, when she was told that Nero would eventually kill her – ‘Occidat, dum imperet!-‘ Let him, so long as he is emperor!’ The voice is lovely, with real warmth and musicality, and she gave a most involving account of ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate,’ although at present her accuracy in the high-speed coloratura is not ideally secure, and the line falters a little in some of the slower numbers. This was, nevertheless, a very promising performance in an immensely taxing role.

The parts of Pallante, Narciso and Lesbo were all impressively taken by, respectively, James Harrison, David Sheringham and Thomas Blunt, with the latter relishing his secondary role as paparazzo-in-residence: the final tableau, with the ‘Family’ all aghast as they are shown the results of his busy snapping, was hilarious, and formed the perfect conclusion to this witty production. As always in this theatre, the sets (Brigit Kimak) were minimal yet eloquent, with Perspex columns used to great effect as Ottone speaks of the ‘soothing waters,’ a billowing curtain and cushions to suggest the ‘boudoir’ and the whole dominated, appropriately, by a vast, stylized laurel wreath and a golden globe.

The London Handel Orchestra was directed by the evergreen Denys Darlow, whose love for this music shone through every bar. His is a highly dramatic reading of the score, with the players going at a cracking pace in the more spirited sections, and the continuo positively sparkling: the sound of the theorbo and harpsichords in the introductory bars of ‘As the Whirlwind’ was sheer joy. Handel’s biographer John Mainwaring wrote of the first night of ‘Agrippina’ that the audience had never known till then ‘all the powers of harmony and modulation so closely arrayed, so forcibly combined,’ a sentiment which the present audience could easily understand after this superb performance.


Melanie Eskenazi




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