The corrupt intrigues of the ancient Roman court get an American political TV drama-style revamp in Oliver Mears’ production for Irish Youth Opera of Handel’s 18th century opera, Agrippina.
As the curtain opens, a backdrop of ancient columns is visible through the window of designer, Annemarie Wood’s swish, oak panelled state room, a reminder of the original Venice staging. This production, the first of the work in Ireland, a coproduction between Northern Ireland Opera and the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick, is More House of Cards than West Wing.
Sharply suited and booted, the eight strong cast stand out crisply in Kevin Treacy’s brightly lit set and the drama moves slickly along from boardroom to bedroom. Even with an hour cut from the original, this is still a long show at just under three hours but the pace never feels sluggish. The Macchievellian intrigue is leavened with an hilarious farcical element and with a tight ensemble from pit to stage, it was highly entertaining from start to finish.
Irish Youth Opera has assembled an impressive cast of Irish singers, most of them back from young artists’ programmes abroad. Máire Flavin is terrific as the arch super-bitch Agrippina in killer heels and designer décolleté who schemes to advance her son to power. I had to look twice to check that it was Rachel Kelly playing Nerone, so chameleon like was her transformation to grumpy teenage boy.
Anna Devin was a sexy Poppea whose charms winkled the first ripple of spontaneous applause from the opening night audience. In a trouser role, Sharon Carty played guileless Ottone. Her lament at the close of the first half was one of the high points of the evening.
Alan Ewing as a deliciously sleazy Claudio showed a remarkable range in his bass arias. Brendan Collins, Padraic Rowan and Dawn Burns make their mark in the smaller roles.
The Irish Chamber Orchestra, not far from their home base at UL played with verve and style under director Jonathan Cohen. With fine solo weaving around vocal lines from lead cellist Aoife Nic Athlaoich and Dan Bates on oboe.
Despite the late hour there was sustained applause and a standing ovation as Limerick music lovers savoured the operatic limelight in the home town of founding member of IYO, Suzanne Murphy.
At the O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin tonight and tomorrow; and The Market Place Theatre, Armagh, Sept 19
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