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Handel Agrippina: The Barber Opera, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, 23.9. 2009 (GR)

The Barber Institute, a window for the University of Birmingham Fine Arts department, is renowned for its mini-exhibitions, concerts and workshops across all the arts. One major contribution has been the staging of Handel’s dramatic works, seven having been performed there between 1959-68. It was therefore appropriate that in 2009, Agrippina should be the chosen opera to commemorate three anniversaries – the 300th of the original Venice premiere, the 250th of Handel’s death and not least the 50th of the introduction of professional opera to the Barber.

In true Barber tradition, this was a fine evening’s entertainment. The production team assembled by Isabella Gage are to be congratulated for their attention to detail that made the complex narrative of Agrippina fully coherent. Astute use of props made the intricacies of the humorous libretto devised by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimandi perfectly clear. Six distinct scene changes were undertaken without interruption to the general flow. Much of the credit here was down to the set designs of Ric Lipson, the cast themselves and the stage team of Rachel Gillard; judicious timing and unobtrusive movement contributed much to the smooth continuity. Settings as diverse as a lady’s boudoir and a street in Rome were transformed simply, results enhanced by the lighting design of Dan Swerdlow.

There were several good ideas from director Emma Rivlin. One I liked was her variation of ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’; this accompanied Emperor Claudio’s vision of how the Roman Empire would conquer the world under his reign – Cade il monde soggiogato. Another attraction was the hilarities produced during Act III in Poppea’s bedroom, her potential suitors being forced to hide from Claudio. This was accomplished with Ottone under the bed and Nerone simultaneously under the bedclothes. It was hardly original slapstick, but smartly choreographed and the audience, young and old, loved it. But Agrippina is not the full opera buffa of Mozart and Paisiello, it is a drama per musica from the era of opera seria. Grimandi had created a satire on a decadent society and the Papal court in particular, as evidenced when Claudio declared himself the ‘Jupiter of Rome’ in Act III. Subtleties were a little sparse. Nevertheless one theme cleverly exploited by Rivlin was the supposed foot fetishism of Roman emperors. Here she extended it beyond Claudio to his subjects as well. Four such incidents were included: Poppea’s adornment of her toenails making sure she looked her best; the emperor’s triumphant flourish as he removed his sandals believing he was about to bed Poppea; the amusing struggle of Nerone to remove his elaborate Jesus boots, also hoping to score with Poppea; the sensuous way Poppea removed the strapping that secured Ottone’s footwear. Rivlin also handled the difficult musico-dramatic structure of Act II Scene 1 with great skill. Integration of the individual da capo and exit arias with the activities of the populace assembled on a Rome street to greet Claudio, demonstrated maturity beyond her years. This was a production that mixed past with present, not always a wise move. Mobile phones and cameras were in evidence despite an emphasis on ancient times as displayed by the predominantly Romanesque costumes of Jemma Evans.

The Barber Professor of Music Colin Timms directed the Kings Music score from the pit. The aria and ensembles were sung in Italian, while the recitatives were in English; no issue here. Minor cuts were made to the recitatives, but they were seamless and little was lost. The length of Handel operas often dictates omissions and three complete arias were discarded. This was understandable as the two halves of the opera each lasted 90 min. But one of these was Ottone’s Coronato il crin d’alloro. For me, this aria reflecting on Ottone’s isolation represents the apex of the whole opera, important not only musically but also to the development of Ottone’s character. With The Musical and Amicable Society Baroque Orchestra tucked away under the stage, singers dominated proceedings, ably supported by Timms at all times. A second harpsichord situated in the wings further ensured efficient communication between the singers and their accompaniment. At crucial moments the balcony built into the stage setting, was used to advantage, adding to the projection of both voices and obbligato instrumental sections – the trumpet to announce Claudio to his subjects and the doleful oboe of Mark Bargent during Agrippina’s Pensieri.

What of the singers? Emily van Evera sang the title role. Having heard and been impressed by excerpts from her latest album My Lady Rich, this was an occasion I eagerly awaited. Her first contribution was L’alma mia, but Evera did not seem as self-assured as the cunning character she was meant to portray; this number was more memorable for its catchy ritornello (a Cesti borrowing). I enjoyed her happy mood in Ho un non so che nel cor, offering Poppea a few tips on seduction – the purity of her soprano voice apparent in a winning, irresistible melody. However I thought she lacked power in the associated recitative, even in such a small auditorium as the Barber. And where was the sense of rage during the caustic aside of Tu ben degno on hearing that her plans for son Nerone had been stymied ? Indeed, such asides contribute much to a positive reception of Agrippina. The cello and accompanying string ritornello again did more to reproduce the mindset of a woman prepared to kill anyone who got in her way. The character’s single-mindedness also failed to come across in Pensieri, voi mi tormentate, although Evera coped well enough with the changing rhythms and dynamics. No amount of props could detract from her lack of character portrayal in the metaphor aria Ogni vento.

The role of Poppea, one of opera’s earliest sex kittens, was deliciously lapped up by Louise Alder. She made an instant impression with Vaghe perle, eletti fiori, dolling herself up in front of her dressing table and stimulating both herself and the audience with her application of beauty cream – rather corny but forgivable. The gaiety of Handel’s music and her delivery infused the auditorium. Se giunge un dispetto with its beautiful melody was all too short (another victim of Timms’ time constraints) but Alder demonstrated that Poppea was not one to be trifled with. When Poppea resolves not to be caught out twice by Agrippina, Alder captured her determination in Ingannata, una sol volta.

The finest vocal contribution of the evening came from William Towers as Ottone. Is there a better British counter-tenor on current offer? Rich of tone and a spectral range of colour, Towers coped admirably with the range of situations into which Ottone was plunged. Having been promised the laurel of Rome for saving Claudio, Towers’ Lusinghiera mia speranza balanced patriotic pride with a premonition of his troubles ahead. He made up for losing Coronato il crin with an emotive plea in the F minor Voi che udite; Ottone had hit rock bottom losing both throne and his Poppea, his angst a high spot of the evening. His luck began to change with Vaghe fonti sung while Poppea slept in the garden, another sad tune but a memorable rendition. The heartfelt Ti vo’ giusta passionately demanded justice rather than pity. Who could refuse? It spelt the inevitable reconciliation of Ottone and Poppea who despite the absence of a real love duet almost get it together in their successive arias Pur ch’io ti stringa and Bel piacere.

A second outstanding contribution came from Timothy Murfin as Claudio – a genuine bass and one who deserves his ‘big break’. He presented another protagonist whose character left something to be desired. Handel measured the grandiose schemes of the Roman emperor by scoring his opening aria Cade il monde over two octaves – a range Murfin spanned with great aplomb. Another potential suitor for Poppea, he made his play in the major key with Vieni O cara. Murfin’s tone and manner were highly persuasive, getting down to his vest in the process. The ruler’s hypocracy was clear in Basta che sol. Murfin pulled out all the stops for Io di Roma il Giove sono, demonstrating he had the power to shake the heavens.

It was easy to laugh at and with the Nerone of counter-tenor Andrew Pickett. He readily handled the various phases through which Agrippina’s son develops – one moment tied to his mother’s apron strings in Con saggio, the next bringing alms to the poor in Capitol Square with the cavatinaQual piace, and finally the rampant teenager in Coll’ardor baring his rear in his lust for Poppea. Samuel Evans and Philip Jones sang their respective roles of the comic duo Pallante and Narciso well enough, but not all of their intended humour was successful. Thomas Kennedy was the servant Lesbo, who efficiently delivered both drinks and his single arietta Allegrezza, Claudio giunge! The quartet, trio and choral numbers were short and sweet.

The previous Barber Opera was in 2000. If this production is anything to go by, it is to be hoped that it is not another nine years before this little gem of a theatre stages another one, particularly now that Phase 1 of its refurbishment is complete.

Geoff Read

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