Irish Youth Opera at O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, on 13 September 2015

The latest grouping to emerge in Ireland’s evolving professional opera scene, Irish Youth Opera presents Handel’s first major opera, Agrippina, possibly its Irish premiere. A story of (mostly) young – and highly ambitious – people, with music composed by the 24-year-old Handel, this sharply observant political-sex comedy is an astute choice. The story, of members of a dysfunctional élite jockeying for political power whilst courting sexual scandal, is ostensibly located in the imperial circle of ancient Rome but fits easily into many settings. The original 1709 production could itself have been a satire on the papal court.

Director Oliver Mears takes an economical approach to staging, with a modernist internal space (elegantly realised by designer Annemarie Woods) serving as the frame for a dizzying array of encounters. Máire Flavin’s compelling title character opens the drama as a slick operator, manipulating all around her with the aim of placing her spoiled teenage son Nerone (Rachel Kelly) on the imperial throne. Always a powerful presence on stage, Flavin easily projects the theatrical charisma that this role demands, along with beautifully-focused singing. The depth of her performance is felt most strongly in her second-act aria ‘Obsession why must you torment me’ [‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate…’], with intensity making way for flashes of brittle vulnerability.

Kelly’s unhinged Nerone makes for a disturbing contrast with the elegant control of his political- and love-rival Ottone (a well-pitched performance by Sharon Carty, unrecognisably cross-dressed). Poppea, the beguiling object of their affections – and Agrippina’s nemesis – is winningly portrayed by soprano Anna Devin, her richly expressive voice brilliant also in matching the vocal acrobatics demanded of her. Bass Alan Ewing – the one ‘senior’ member of the company – brings emperor Claudio to life with a powerful vocal and physical presence, here the louche CEO of the corporation.

Unusually for touring operas in this country, the accompanying orchestra is an established group, the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Their collective experience shows in the cohesive ensemble playing, neatly conducted by Jonathan Cohen, with some lovely solos from oboist Dan Bates and harpsichordist Ashok Gupta.

With no weak links on- or off-stage, the momentum and focus of story-telling never slackens, making this easily one of the most irresistible opera productions seen in Ireland in recent years. Cleverly cast, wittily directed and sharply funny, IYO’s Agrippina sends up the pretensions and abuses of the rich and powerful with a steady eye. On a limited touring season, ending on Saturday 19th in Armagh, this deserves to be seen.

Programme:

Handel: Agrippina

Libretto: English translation (of Agrippina, attributed to Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani) by Amanda Holden

Director: Oliver Mears; Designer: Annemarie Woods; Conductor: Jonathan Cohen

Cast (in order of singing): Máire Flavin (Agrippina); Rachel Kelly (Nerone); Brendan Collins (Pollante); Dawn Burns (Narciso); Padraic Rowan (Lesbo); Sharon Carty (Ottone); Anna Devin (Poppea); Alan Ewing (Claudio)

Ensemble: Irish Chamber Orchestra (led by Katherine Hunka)

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