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Agrippina

by on 10 June 2018

Power Politics: a Coup de Théâtre

Agrippina

by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Vincenzo Grimani

The Grange Festival, The Grange, Northington until 6th July

A review by Mark Aspen

Sex, wealth and power are often said to be the prime motivators of the human psyche. This is indisputably the case for the protagonists in Handel’s opera, Agrippina, set in the court of the Roman Emperor Claudius in AD54. So, when the curtain opens and the audience sees a set that is a mirror image of the auditorium, it could be asking the question, could we, even we, act in this way if we had power, power moving towards absolute power?

Agrippina is one of Handel’s earliest operas, written when he was only 24 years old, in Italian, for the Venice Carnival of 1709-10. His librettist Grimani was a Cardinal and probably was using the licence of the Carnevale to satirise the political rivalry between the Emperor Joseph and Pope Clement XI. The plot is based on the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, but with some liberties taken with the historical chronology for the purpose of the satire.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

The Grange Festival has taken the intention of satirical comedy and has run with it in a wonderful concatenation of surprises, using imaginative settings and superb singing that well understands the brilliance of Handel’s music in underlining the dissembling nature of almost all of the protagonists. For here we have a hornet’s nest of double-dealing schemers, morally starving but egotistically over-fed. The story, told straight, would horrify and disgust even the most worldly, but the trick is the broad use of comedy to ridicule their excesses. The libretto liberally uses the Baroque opera conceit of aparte (characters’ expressions of their true thoughts, which are only heard by the audience), whereas Handel reflects this in contrasting dark minor-key melodies and bubbly open accompaniments. (Think modern war films depicting violent action with lyrical musical background.) Conductor Robert Howarth’s skilful interpretation of the two-layered nature of Handel’s score brings top form from the acclaimed specialist Baroque orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music with a lively pacing and vivid interpretation of the drama.

We meet Agrippina in the stalls of the theatre, already scheming, for her husband Claudio (Claudius) is reported to have been drowned at sea, and she sees that she can seize the opportunity to have her own son Nerone (Nero), a pampered 17 year old, declared Emperor. Agrippina has a great line in playing one end against the other. So she enlists the aid of the courtier Pallente with promises of exclusive sexual favours. She then enlists the aid of another courtier Nasisco with equal promises of exclusive sexual favours.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

You see, this theatre she is in could be figuratively a theatre of war, or an operating theatre, or possibly a lecture theatre, for Nerone enters and she now explains to him what he must do to secure the backing of the people … bribe them. But, hold on, they are Us, the real audience of The Grange Festival. Nero scatters his largesse amongst us, a few fat envelopes (tickets to The Grange?) and we are bought. Meanwhile Agrippina flicks cigarette ash down from the stage.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

Anita Bonitatibus brings malign magnificence to the role of Agrippina, as an arch-manipulator, pulling all the strings. The award winning Italian mezzo has a velvety richness in her vocalisation that suggests the lubricious legerdemain that Agrippina is well-versed in using to her advantage. From her opening recitative, instructing Nerone, “la tua fortuna prender potrai pe’l crine, ed arrestarla” (to seize your fortune by her locks and stop her in motion), we see a woman who will use any means, from crocodile tears to knife-in-back, to gain power and keep it. Even when the game is up and her duplicity revealed, her final aria is “se vuoi pace, l’odio reo fuga da te!” (if you want peace, let hatred flee from you), but we know that there is a different agenda in her mind. Janus is less two-faced than Agrippina, and Bonitatibus lets us know it.

Agrippina might fly many flags at her mast, but it is not all plain sailing for her. A (gorgeously Handelian) fanfare suddenly portends an announcement. We learn via Lesbo, a court retainer, that Claudio is not drowned. He was saved by the army general Ottone (Otho) who has now been declared successor to the throne by Claudio. Undaunted, Agrippina launches a new deceit, exploiting Ottone’s love for Poppea, a young and beautiful lady of the court, knowing that she is also desired by Claudio, and a fresh series of trickery ensues where she plays all ends against the middle in a game of sexual musical chairs.

Worldwide very few opera companies have an artistic director drawn from the ranks of opera singers, but Michael Chance, The Grange Festival’s Artistic Director is an internationally renowned countertenor, and a Baroque expert. So it could be argued that his choice of Agrippina to open The Grange Festival’s 2018 opera season has informed insider knowledge, for Agrippina has no less than three countertenor roles. In the stylised conventions of Baroque opera in Handel’s time, high voices were equated with high rank. Hence of course the superstar status of the castrati of the day.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

Nerone, the selfish brat of the Roman court (until he became dangerously deranged) is played by Raffaele Pe as a lithe leather-clad rocker, a despicable mummy’s boy. In some productions of Agrippina there is the hint of an incestuous relationship, not unknown in the Roman court, but here is very lightly hinted at. There is a slight sense of danger that the flick knife could emerge and the patent leather loafers have steel toe-caps. Pe has a precise countertenor voice, with a finely honed edge, just right for this character.

James Hall’s Narciso (Narcissus), one of the pair of Agrippina’s toadies, is portrayed as a somewhat Bertie-Wooster-like fop, fetchingly attired in violet trousers. Here we have a countertenor in comedy mode as he sucks up to the redoubtable Agrippina. Hall contrasts neatly with Alex Otterburn’s suited and booted Pallante, efficiently running around with clipboard at Agrippina’s call, but equally in thrall to her fateful fascination. Otterburn’s crisp baritone maintains that contrast vocally amongst all these countertenors.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

Christopher Ainslie’s Ottone brings an again different timbre to the countertenor voice, a warm and soft tone, which works well with this character, for Ottone is perhaps the only one of Claudio’s court that has any semblance of moral integrity. Ottone is another of Agrippina’s fall-guys, and her machinations end up with his being denounced by Claudio as a traitor and shunned by everyone in the court, including his beloved Poppea. Ainslie’s “voi che udite il mio lamento, compatite il mio dolor! “ (you who hear my lament, pity my sorrow!) is heart-rending.

Canadian soprano Stefanie True plays Poppea as a pert and pretty flirt. Although she holds a candle for Ottone, she is lusted after both by Claudio and Nerone, and one feels that she is not entirely uncomfortable with this situation. She is fully able to play one off against the other, and she has learnt lessons from Agrippina. However here she is not yet the Poppea on Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and, once she is convinced of Ottone’s guiltless nature, she stands with Ottone as he is shown to be innocent of his supposed sedition. True is beautifully cast in this role as a minx sending the men mad with desire (Nerone nearly explodes when she parts her silk negligee to reveal her Anne Summer’s stockings and red suspender belt!) Vocally, her clear coloratura soprano excels.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

Claudio is seen in Handel’s Agrippina as a bemused personality lost in the machinations of his own court and is treated as a figure of ridicule, albeit still a dangerous one. Bass-baritione Ashley Riches not only has a rich and resonant voice, but he is a great actor, with his comic timing off to a tee. One has almost to feel sorry for a hapless emperor as the future of his throne and the affections of his women are redistributed before his eyes. The trade-off is that Nero becomes the heir apparent to the throne, whilst Ottone relinquishes imperial power for the hand of his beloved Poppea in marriage.

 

Meanwhile, Claudio’s loyal servant Lesbo keeps an ubiquitous presence, ears and eyes to keep up (or try to keep up) with all the sexual shenanigans, power politics and wheeler-dealing. Jonathan Best brings an impressive bass voice to his scurrying portrayal of the sycophantic Lesbo, always at his master’s behest, to note and record, even rushing out for his selfie-stick to catch the moment on his mobile.

Agrippina 11

Yes, this production is right up in 2018 with the bright modern dress as part of a bright modern setting. What brings us up with a jolt is the realisation that the theatre-within-the-theatre is in fact the theatre we are sitting in. The Roman emperor’s palace is The Grange. This becomes clear after the interval when the curtain opens to reveal the colonnaded grand interior of the palace, and when the door opens, Poppea enters and sunlight streams in, we see the grounds of The Grange through the doorway. Wait a minute, some of the columns are wonky, and here come workmen restoring them with replacements still clad in shrink-wrap. When we see Agrippina bemoaning the failure of her planned murder conspiracies to secure the throne for her son Nerone, “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (thoughts, you torment me), she lies on a one-twentieth scale model of The Grange. At the climax of the plot, before its final resolution, Claudio and Nerone have a moment of destructive fury, in which columns are toppled and smashed, and the palace-Grange itself wrecked, quite a coup de théâtre in itself. (One wonders if this reflects on the recent history of The Grange.) The concept and realisation of this set is a stroke of genius for designer, Jon Bausor, creator of the opening ceremony for the 2012 Paralympic Games, which lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel strikingly and atmospherically enhances. Moreover it is a dynamic set, with extensive use of the revolve to create more clever symbolism. The movement of the stairs in the raked auditorium of the theatre set obliges the protagonists to keep climbing. These are after all figures with great ambitions to get to the top, but they never make it. Meanwhile the plotting and sexual intrigues all take place in the secret underground areas beneath.

Agrippina - George Frideric Handel - The Grange Festival - 8th June 2018

Conductor - Robert Howarth
Director - Walter Sutcliffe
Designer - Jon Bausor
Lighting - Wolfgang Goebbel

Claudio - Ashley Riches
Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone - Raffaele Pe
P

Director Walter Sutcliffe’s fresh and imaginative Agrippina is a triumph of integrated theatre, with brilliant realisation of music, singing, acting and design into a complete and satisfyingly holistic work of art. As the opening offering of its second opera season, this is stuff that will propel The Grange Festival to the top.

Mark Aspen
June 2018

Photography by Robert Workman

From → Opera, Reviews

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