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Handel – Agrippina

English National Opera at the Coliseum, London
8 February 2007

Agrippina – Sarah Connolly

Claudio – Brindley Sherratt

Nerone – Christine Rice

Poppea – Lucy Crowe

Ottone – Reno Troilus

Pallante – Henry Waddington

Narciso – Stephen Wallace

Lesbo – Richard Suart


Conductor – Daniel Reuss

Director – David McVicar

Associate Director (ENO) - Lee Blakely

Designer – John Macfarlane

Lighting Designer – Paule Constable


The pivotal force in Handel's brilliantly witty pastiche of 1st century Roman history is Power – the Emperor Claudio is becoming weary of it; his wife Agrippina exercises it with ruthless efficiency to secure the succession for her son Nerone, who takes it for granted it with careless unconcern. The soldier Ottone rejects it in favour of his love for Poppea, whom we observe awaking to its attractions.


ENO have scored a hit with their contemporary production of Agrippina, first seen in Brussels 2000. There are 21 steep golden steps leading up to the imperial throne which dominates John Macfarlane's clever set and forms the focus of the Agrippina's ambitions.

Amanda Holden's biting translation sparkles with humour and is liberally sprinkled with puns and “after the watershed” language. David McVicar is constantly inventive in his direction, picking up every cue in the music and words for an unexpected visual allusion, whether it be Nerone distributing largesse to the populace in the form of trade mark Manolo Blahnik shoeboxes “Qual piacere a un cor pietos” or Lesbo (Richard Suart) popping up like an ubiquitous TV commentator at every opportunity. The costumes, a whole cavalcade of them, are spot on, all perfectly revealed under Paule Constable's lighting.


Sarah Connolly's Agrippina is convincingly manipulative, weaving a web of malice and intrigue as she stalks the stage, and she sings commandingly. Claudio is necessarily a lacklustre figure, but Brindley Sherratt [pictured above] sings with a commendable clarity which invests his character with a measure of imperial authority.

The delectable Lucy Crowe makes a glittering debut as Poppea. Her voice sails through all the complexities with flying colours – especially lovely in Bella pur del mio diletto and her acting was equally impressive, growing in awareness of Agrippina's duplicity, maintaining just the right amount of decorum as she drowns her sorrow in drink, accompanied by an on stage cabaret harpsichord.


Reno Troilus is also making his ENO debut in the demanding role of Ottone. This young Glaswegian singer only completed his studies at the RSAMD last year, he has a distinctive voice which has matured since I last heard him; I believe it will continue to strengthen. His aria Coronata il crin d'alloro is perhaps the best known piece from the opera, he sang it well and also demonstrated some very neat footwork in Andrew George's choreography.


Christine Rice throws everything, vocally and dramatically, into the outrageous Nerone, a punk playboy recklessly snorting line after line of coke whilst scorching out Come nube che fugge del vento (As a cloud flies from the wind) – an unforgettable piece of staging.


As the opera draws to a close McVicar cuts the approbational appearance of the goddess Juno and throws in just a glimpse of the way that the characters of Nerone and Poppea and their relationship will develop.


The small semi-period orchestra sounded well enough under the direction of Daniel Reuss. Although the theorbos were more to be seen than heard, the two harpsichords made their marks.


Long though the evening was (4 hours in all), I would happily have sat through a replay, and hope one day to see it on DVD.


Serena Fenwick


see also Agnes Kory at http://www.musicalcriticism.com/opera/agrippina.htm


Photo credits Clive Barda