Händel - Agrippina

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday September 23 2003

Conductor: Réne Jacobs. Production: David McVicar. Agrippina: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Nerone: Malena Ernman. Poppea: Miah Persson. Claudio: Lorenzo Regazzo. Ottone: Lawrence Zazzo. Pallante: Antonio Abete. Narciso: Dominique Visse. Lesbo: Lynton Black. Concerto Köln.

Just one week after William Christie's voiceless wonders, René Jacobs showed that baroque opera really doesn't have to be like that. David McVicar's production of Agrippina, shared with Brussels, is on its second outing in Paris. It is, in my opinion, a great modern Händel production, a model of how Händelian opera can be made to work, and work well, as theatre today.

The potential for staging this tale of political scheming, corruption and power play like Dynasty is there in the libretto, snide asides and all. Agrippina is the Joan Collins of the show, a tall, dark, glamorous, sexy, rich bitch in little black dress and five-inch heels, a glass of champagne constantly to hand. She'll stop at nothing to get her son, Nerone, on the throne - but whatever dirty business she's up to is carried off with a swagger and a smile. Nerone, a breeches role, is a Di-Caprio-lookalike spoilt brat, sometimes in streetwear, sometimes in a dinner jacket, hands thrust in pockets, gauche in his lovemaking, jerky in his movements after sniffing quantities of cocaine. Ottone is in tight, white naval uniform. Claudio is the emperor in a suit, or practising golf in jogging pants, his white hair brushed back, Clinton-like. And so on.

The ideas, though some may find them audacious, never quite betray the lyrics. Ottone does indeed find Poppea "resting among the flowers;" but the flowers in question are a large vaseful of white lilies on the counter of a piano bar (with a harpsichord where the piano should be), behind which she is slumped after one martini too many. The fountains or springs of which he sings pour from a vodka bottle. Nerone, prompted by his mother, delivers his wholly hypocritical speech on the poor, and how much better it would be to quit power and join them, to TV cameras.

This could all turn to slapstick. But as the curtain (showing a blood-streaked Roman she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus) rises, the characters are first presented sitting or lying, in their modern costumes, on a row of classical sarcophagi. The halls of power are made up of massive, mobile black marble piers, Roman in scale, gloomy and oppressive in effect... and throughout the production, the sarcophagi wait in a line at the rear and occasionally serve as props: Agrippina's dressing table, Poppea's couch... These permanent mementi mori, hinting at vanity and mortality, balance out the nevertheless highly entertaining stage business. The production ends as it began, with the characters back on their tombs.

Ana-Caterina Antonacci acts and sings marvellously. Her voice is the Händelian equivalent of a dramatic soprano, dark, agile and powerful, contrasting well with the almost too pretty sound of Rosemary Joshua, singing from the pit while Miah Persson, voiceless, acted and lip-synched her part on stage. Joshua's virtuosity was stunning; she is able, however fast the runs, still to shape and phrase. A pity, though, that she needed to keep her nose in the score rather than projecting up into the theatre.

The third star of the show was Lawrence Zazzo as Ottone, who reduced even the Paris audience to total silence in his wonderful soliloquy. Dominique Visse was Dominique Visse, a strong character in a character role. Mezzo Malena Ernman was only slightly less comfortable in her rapid coloratura passages than the super-professional Joshua - and coping with festoons of coloratura while sniffing "clouds" (yes, it's in the text) of coke can't be easy. Lorenzo Regazzo had the theatre announce, after the intermission, he was sick but would soldier on. Perhaps with relief at having owned up, he sang better in the second half than in the first.

Concerto Köln under Jacobs are less note perfect than Les Arts Florissants under Christie, but less feathery too, more flexible and with a good deal more oomph. Baroque orchestras don't have to be barely audible, after all. Though the evening is long and hot, you're gripped. A great show.

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