Agrippina, The Grange Festival, June 2018

Agrippina, wife of the emperor Claudius (Claudio), is bent on securing the throne for Nero (Nerone), her son by a previous marriage. A scheming woman who manipulates her spiritually weak husband and everyone around her, she finds herself out-manoeuvred by the pretty Poppea, desired by Claudio and Nerone, to say nothing of her beloved Ottone whose rescue of Claudio barely disturbs Agrippina’s plans for her son.

Ottone, Agrippina, Narciso, Pallante, Claudio, Lesbo, Nerone, Poppea, all images Robert Workman

Classical history bent to the exigencies of sexually inspired intrigue and Agrippina’s unrelenting ambition, this production by Walter Sutcliffe sets it in bright modern costume, complete with smart phones. Some Handel purists may object, but the audience loved it.

Super performances too, notably by Italian soprano Anna Bonitatibus as the deceptive and duplicitous Agrippina. Her Se vuoi pace, o volto amato in the opera’s conclusion, telling her husband how to achieve peace by ridding himself of hatred and trusting in her love and loyalty, was a beautifully delivered contradiction of her inveterate scheming. In the meantime the first half ended with a very finely sung lament (middle of Act II in Handel’s original) by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie, expressing his despair at being rejected by everyone as a traitor. This allowed the second half to start with a beautiful garden glimpsed at the rear of the stage while the delectable Poppea of Canadian soprano Stephanie True sings of hope that her beloved Ottone is innocent. Ms True’s gorgeous appearance in bright colours and loose fitting clothes, revealing stockings and suspenders at one point as she opens her light-weight dressing gown to Nerone, helped her portray a sexy minx driving the men to distraction, while skilfully deflecting Agrippina’s wiles after escaping her web of deceit.

Poppea and Nerone

The mischievously attractive Nerone of Italian counter-tenor Raffaele Pe in his stylish jackets made an ideal son of the over-powerful mother, and the bemused Claudio of bass Ashley Riches emphasised how much the two women exercised control. Bass Alex Otterburn and counter-tenor James Hall as Pallante and Narciso added their sycophantic admiration of Agrippina, until they realise she has tricked them too, and bass Jonathan Best as Claudio’s servant Lesbo (the only non-historical character in the opera) added a note of stability to mix.

This light-hearted romp shows why an eighteenth century audience could warm to this Handel opera with its libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani seeming to satirize the Papal court. Terrific fun, with Jon Bausor’s clever designs well lit by Wolfgang Göbbel, and music beautifully played by The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Robert Howarth. A great start to the season under the supervision of baroque expert Michael Chance.

Performances continue on various dates until July 6 — for details click here.

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