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Jason/Agrippina, English Touring Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Jason/Agrippina, English Touring Opera

Jason/Agrippina, English Touring Opera

A mixed bag of baroque from English Touring Opera

Have some madeira M'dea: Jason (Clint van der Linde) woos lover Medea (Hannah Pedley)Richard Hubert Smith

English Touring Opera has form when it comes to baroque opera. Handelfest in 2009 marked the composer’s 250th anniversary with a sequence of excellent stagings, while 2010’s The Duenna was a riotous and irreverent musical delight, and there was an Alcina back in 2005 that still sticks in the memory for all the right reasons.

So a season of three period productions – Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Cavalli’s Jason and Handel’s Agrippina – promised much. Some careful repertoire choices, deft direction, and the added enticement of a return to the Royal College of Music’s intimate Britten Theatre all played their part, but performances themselves proved oddly uneven.

Music and mood can turn on a dime, without having to lug an extended da capo behind them

Even by baroque’s baggy standards Cavalli’s Jason is a monster, and demands significant cuts to streamline it for a contemporary audience. Ronald Eyre’s performing edition is brutally efficient, bringing proceedings down to a brisk just-over-an-hour for each half. Inevitably this means that characters and encounters are jettisoned. Three acts become two and Jason’s wife Isiphile, for example, doesn’t make an appearance until the second. It’s a deferral that actually heightens dramatic tension nicely, creating an elegant balance between the mirror halves of the opera – the first at Colchis with Medea and the second on Lemnos where the philandering Jason is reunited with his wife.

Director Ted Huffman places us in an uncomplicated no-time, no-place, framed with elegant simplicity by Samal Blak’s sets – a faintly Baltic blend of Gustavian style and gentle off-whites. In Hannah Pedley’s Medea we also have a heroine who is also decidedly off-white, but this retelling of the tale places less blame with her as magical seductress than with Jason himself (Clint van der Linde). The plot is freely adapted from mythology, offering an unusually domestic take on a tale of heroism that generally favours battles over romance.

Cavalli’s uniquely flexible and chromatically-infused arioso style is well suited to a drama that slips constantly between joy, high comedy and tragedy. Music and mood can turn on a dime, without having to lug an extended da capo behind them, and when it does break into aria – tiny, simple melodies – the effect is disarmingly effective. Dance permeates the writing and thanks to the athletic (if occasionally rather approximate) work of the Old Street Band under Joseph McHardy, it swings and snaps with percussive energy.

The score is hero here, carrying some rather uneven singing through an evening that charms more than it impresses vocally. Pedley’s Medea (pictured above) is seductive and competently delivered, but occasionally sits just under the note, curdling the sweetness of her blandishments. An ailing van der Linde failed on opening night to relish Cavalli’s swooning arcs of melody, offering a strangely muted performance in which he was dwarfed by both his rival women. Catrine Kirkman’s Isiphile was sweetly sung, never over-weighting the composer’s delicate lines, while a surprisingly tender Delfa from Michal Czerniawski, a cleanly comic Orestes (Piotr Lempa, pictured below with Peter Aisher) and a stand-in Demus (Aisher, stuttering wonderfully) rounded out a true ensemble cast.

Agrippina is up there with Handel’s most melodious scores, and with a plot more cynical than most makes a natural fit for a contemporary audience sick of sudden repentances and deathbed conversions. Led by Gillian Webster’s Agrippina, the cast plotted and schemed their way through intrigue after intrigue under James Conway’s intelligent direction. Blak’s designs offered their own share of wryness, jostling for our attention with some of the foreground interplay.

Webster (pictured below) is supremely good – a joyous flourish of coloratura and focused tone, shrugging off da capo embellishments with careless ease. Did we truly believe her as an evil Machiavel? Not a bit of it, but luckily Handel’s story doesn’t take us through to Agrippina’s bloody endgame. Paula Sides makes for a minxy Poppea, more assured dramatically than vocally, despite having to contend with the limp van der Linde as lover Ottone. Any energy lacked by van der Linde was more than supplemented by Jake Arditti’s manic Nerone however – ferociously camp and hurling runs at us with desperate intensity.

Jonathan Peter Kenny certainly wasn’t hanging about with the tempos. Ranging from brisk to breakneck, some sections fared better than others. The overture was a joy, and the closing dance, but to take “Vaghe fonti” at a canter is to lose the throbbing intensity of its rhythms and suggestive wind writhings. And as for Claudio’s gorgeous little cavatina “Viena O Cara” – it may be sung by a buffoon in determined seduction, but it deserves just a little more indulgence and phrasing than Kenny or Andrew Slater afforded it. Slips of intonation and ensemble from the Old Street Band didn’t help matters, but surely these details will settle as the run progresses.

Two mixed evenings then, but despite smudges and the odd bit of miscasting both ETO’s productions leave their mark in a sense of ebullient energy. You feel very well entertained on leaving the theatre, and isn’t that what it’s all about? Herr Handel would doubtless have had some stern words, but free from his reproving gaze the rest of us can get on with having a good time.

English Touring Opera's Jason and Agrippina tour the UK until 24 November, 2013

'Agrippina' makes a natural fit for a contemporary audience sick of sudden repentances and deathbed conversions


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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