Royal College of Music
8 October 2013
The opening sinfonia, by the English Baroque soloists, conducted by Eliot Gardiner.
Early problematic Handel presented as zany comedy mostly rises above tedium.
In each of English Touring Opera’s Venetian Baroque operas this season, the visual aspect has been essential to bringing these scores to dramatic life, and while Handel would, on the face of it, require less work, this isn’t at all my experience. His operas may appeal musically but if anything they pose even greater dramatic challenges than earlier works.
This is one of Handel’s parody opera seria, where he and his librettist adopt a humorous stance towards the plots of the dominant form of opera of their time, though not necessarily the musical conventions.
It is not easy to know how to respond to this work, or how the creators intended us to respond. James Conway, translator and director of this production, has created a Rossinian comedy, with bright sets, daft costumes and broadly grotesque characters. Claudio, in particular, might be one of the stereotyped Turks out of Mozart or Rossini.
The music doesn’t quite support this approach, in particular the music for the hero Ottone. He is unforgivably drippy, but in a different context his sad arias might contribute to a more serious, if not tragic drama.
Unfortunately, Ottone is given prominence second only to the title character, so that each time he appeared I dreaded the possibility of an aria. That can’t have been the effect the creators intended.
Conway opts for editorialising intertitles rather than surtitles, conjuring the effect of a zany silent film, but his translation is also clear enough to need no additional help, thanks to fine diction from all performers.
That we could follow the words helped minimise the repetitive effect of each aria, so that I found dramatic flow was interrupted less than when the singing is in Italian. Which isn’t to say that each aria deserved its repeat. Perhaps some judicious cutting of the repeats might improve the overall experience.
Agrippina is not simply the central character, she is almost the only character of interest, and is given arias delineating a respectable range of moods, from anxiety through ingratiating mendacity through ambition. Gillian Webster met every challenge, giving a formidable account despite being hampered with an unflattering costume and wig.
Everyone sang well, perhaps especially Paula Sides’ Poppea being the other vocal standout, producing beautifully shaded tone. Andrew Slater’s Claudio also deserves mention for some marvellous, if broad, comic acting. The Old Street Band under Jonathan Peter Kenny played a re-orchestrated version of the original with panache.
If the production didn’t resolve the work’s tendency to induce boredom, enough of Handel in vital mode survives to make this another success for ETO.