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It is salutary to be reminded, in the context of English National Opera’s Agrippina, that Handel completed it in three weeks and based all but five of almost 50 vocal movements on earlier material. Three centuries ago composers were not so fussy. After doing the rounds of Italy – Agrippina was the second and last opera he wrote there – Handel never revived it. And yet to hear the music on Monday, especially the introspective arias and vocal fireworks, was to be confronted with genius.
The other purpose of this performance was to underline how much fun Handel can be. David McVicar’s staging, first mounted for Brussels and now heard in Amanda Holden’s clear and witty translation, puts a premium on entertainment, much like his Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. A single set (John Macfarlane), revolving around a stair to the emperor’s throne, does for the entire evening, but the versatility with which it is reconfigured, the elegance with which it is lit (Paule Constable), and the way McVicar uses it to showcase the intrigue, mean we are on a level with the plot at every turn. It helps that the characters are power-dressed in contemporary Italian chic, so that we feast on their glamour while laughing at their folly. Aria after aria unfolds without the opera seeming interminably long, and Daniel Reuss’s propulsive tempi and transparent textures certainly help – though at nearly four hours, the show does not sell Handel short on music.
It does sell him short on sincerity. In this classic operatic tangle of love and power, Handel picked up on the irreverent style of Monteverdi and Cavalli while giving us a pre-echo of Mozart and Da Ponte. McVicar provides comedy aplenty, but I missed the serious undertones. Each character is sent up in a whirl of narcissism and sexual innuendo, with the result that there is no depth and you leave the theatre with a mixed taste in the mouth.
McVicar’s triumph, as always, is to draw committed performances from his cast. With her elegant posture and air of cool, Sarah Connolly convinces us that the empress is the smartest politician of them all, making up in vocal grace and style what she misses in intensity. Her brilliant foils are Christine Rice’s Nerone and Lucy Crowe’s Poppea, both a fusion of acting and singing in the finest Handelian tradition. Brindley Sherratt is the deliciously clumsy Claudius, Reno Troilus a lightweight Ottone.
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