While Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea takes place within the tyrannical reign of the Emperor Nero, Handel's Agrippina, written 60 years later, charts the lead-up to the mean fiddler's accession to the throne. In particular, this prequel shows a mother's over-riding ambition to get her idiot son the top job. It's apt, therefore, that English Touring Opera should present the two works side by side in their autumn season.
James Conway's new production is simple and elegant, with little in the way of directorial intervention, leaving embellishments to the vocal lines. Samal Blak's set uses an inverted periaktoid inside a box, providing bays for pools of action to ripple in, while a mini gilded Eros spins on top. It's all very neat and economical.
The singing is, for the most part, excellent. There's not much sense of ruthlessness in Gillian Webster's Agrippina but she is sound and solid as the pushy matriarch and her vexatious 'Pensieri, voi me tormentare' is grippingly effective. Of the three counter-tenors, Jake Arditti's effeminate boy Nero is the strongest but Clint van der Linde has his moments, most noticeably his plaintive footlit lament ('Voi chi udite il mio lamento') which leads into the interval. Paula Sides is an attractive, scheming Poppea.
The production offers an interesting solution to the surtitle issue, which can prove a distraction for some, especially for opera sung in English, as this is. The recitative has no captions, which is mostly appropriate, and arias have just a brief and often witty summary. It gives the audience signposts but doesn't take away the need to listen. It may only work for some operas – Handel has much repetition in the da capo arias and often limited text that doesn't push the action forward – but it's a method that could still have a wider application, and well done to ETO for trying it.
The driving force of the show is the energetic conducting of Jonathan Peter Kenny and the spirited, if at times rough around the edges, sound of the Old Street Band. The storytelling could be clearer but Conway and Blak‘s production is like an antique pocket-watch with a precise mechanism and a pleasing setting.