Magazine article The Spectator

Patience Rewarded

Magazine article The Spectator

Patience Rewarded

Article excerpt

Agrippina

Coliseum

Agrippina is widely agreed among Handelians to be his first major opera. Constituted, to a large extent, of arias from pre-existing works, it does have a strongly distinctive character, and is as precocious a work as any operatic composer has achieved by the age of 24. What makes it still more striking is that it is pitilessly satirical, a portrayal of relationships among the ruling class of ancient Rome showing them to be determined by gross ambition, with long-term ends even further from its characters' minds than one expects from politicians, and instant sexual gratification vying with vengeance as the leading motive for action. Given who the characters are, the obvious point of comparison is Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, which had been composed almost 70 years earlier, but is an incomparably more subtle and more deeply comic work than Agrippina. In Monteverdi's opera Poppea is both violently in love with Nero and desperate to be Empress; in Handel's she is an empty-headed vamp, precursor of Semele, taking it as read that everyone loves her as much as she loves herself -- and they do. Seneca's stern moral injunctions to Nero in Monteverdi, both noble and boring, and essential to the structure of the opera, have no counterpart in Handel, nor is there any figure of the tragic stature of Ottavia, the despised Empress. With Monteverdi one has a sense of a world of Shakespearean complexity, with Agrippina a cartoon depiction of figures who have nothing that can be dignified as psychology at all.

David McVicar, as we might expect, welcomes the diagrammatic simplicity of Agrippina. This production at ENO is new to the UK, but was created for Brussels in 2000. In between, in 2005, we have had the chance to see his version of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne and the Proms. That was greeted with universal rapture; I loathed it, feeling that not only was the comedy coarse and commonplace, but also that the fundamental seriousness of the piece, a far greater work than Agrippina, was betrayed.

Those who adored McVicar's Cesare are now feeling that nothing new is added in his Agrippina, which may be true, but the question remains of which of the two this kind of treatment is more suitable for. And there is the further feature that, while Cesare was performed in Italian, Agrippina is given in Amanda Holden's racy, even saucy English, and of course with surtitles (I'd for once like to see a sign-interpreted performance to see how Nerone's line 'F-- f--ety f--' is realised in movement). The action is updated to the present, though the scenery is grandly monumental, apart from an imposing flight of stairs that leads to a throne, all of which moves around a good deal. …

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