Monday 25 June 2018

Vivid drama: Handel's Agrippina at The Grange Festival

Handel: Agrippina - Raffaele Pe, James Hall, Alex Otterburn, Anna Bonitatibus - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Agrippina - Raffaele Pe, James Hall, Alex Otterburn, Anna Bonitatibus
The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Handel Agrippina; Anna Bonitatibus, Raffaele Pe, Ashley Riches, Christopher Ainslie, Stefanie True, dir: Walter Sutcliffe, cond: Robert Howarth; The Grange Festival  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Strong personen regie heightens an intimate account of Handel's Venetian opera

Handel: Agrippina - Stefanie True, Raffaele Pe - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Stefanie True, Raffaele Pe - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Handel's Agrippina is one of his few operas not to be performed in England during his lifetime. Premiered in Venice in 1709, it has a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani which is one of the best librettos that Handel set. Fast paced and far more explicitly comic than any of Handel's operas written for London, it is an idea choice for audiences for whom Handel's later large-scale serious operas might be a bit forbidding. So the work was just right for The Grange Festival, especially as the intimate theatre capitalises on the opera's lively plotting.

Directed by Walter Sutcliffe and designed by Jon Bausor with lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel, the production featured Ashley Riches as Claudio, Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina, Raffaele Pe as Nerone, Stefanie True as Poppea, Christopher Ainslie as Ottone, Alex Otterburn as Pallante, James Hall as Narciso, and Jonathan Best as Lesbo. Robert Howarth conducted the Academy of Ancient Music leader Bojan Cicic, with Michael Chance responsible for the musical preparation.

Walter Sutcliffe's production set the piece in a theatre when the curtain rose we saw Anna Bonitatibus's Agrippina sitting in a mirror image of the Grange theatre's auditorium. Set in modern dress, Sutcliffe used the theatre as a metaphor for the dynastic struggles of the plot, with Claudio (Ashley Riches) as the ageing director with the plotting to succeed him. The first half (Act One and the opening scenes of Act Two), Agrippina's confidence in her plotting were indicated by the way that she re-worked the theatre's physical presence. Jon Bausor's set had two dramatic coups, first the seating area rotated in a spectacular manner, so that Claudio et al met Poppea (Stefanie True) in the space underneath the raked seating, and then at the opening of the second half, with the seats gone, we had a plainer more classical space with a door at the back open to reveal a vista of the Northington Grange gardens (in fact a large scale photo strategically placed outside the theatre building).

Handel: Agrippina - Anna Bonitatibus - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Anna Bonitatibus - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
The strength of Sutcliffe's production was that it did not matter whether you understood the background to the setting. He did not fill the stage with extraneous entertainment, and simply left space for the singers to perform and to act. The personen regie was very detailed and in such an intimate auditorium this enabled the singers to project the drama in all sorts of subtle ways. The result was a highly engaging and very entertaining evening, yet one which did not shirk the serious moments either.

Anna Bonitatibus's Agrippina was a wonderfully vivid creation, determined and single-minded in her plotting in a way which mixed an element of humour into the drama without sending the character up. Bonitatibus has a superb way with Handel's vocal lines, displaying plenty of admirably crisp passagework and vividly conveying character using the music. This was a fully realised and brilliant creation.

Agrippina's son, Nerone, was played by a counter-tenor, Raffaele Pe, rather than a female mezzo-soprano. The role was written for a soprano castrato and to be sung by man nowadays requires a counter-tenor with a high-lying voice. The role's high tessitura held no terrors for Pe who gave us a dazzling sequence of arias. Part of the comedy is the way that Nerone (who is supposed to be just 21) is such a youthful and unheroic character and Pe clearly delighted in the wonderfully brattish aspects of the role.

Handel: Agrippina - Matthew Best, Stefanie True - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Matthew Best, Stefanie True - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Ottone is perhaps the most serious role, he is a character who never really gets involved in the comedy and is solely concerned with his love for Poppea. Part of  the comedy arises from the fact that having rescued Claudio from drowning, Claudio's gift of the Emperorship is something that Ottone does not want (he only wants to love Poppea) so that much of Agrippina's plotting for her son Nerone is redundant. But the audience are the only ones in on the joke.

Christopher Ainslie made a stunning Ottone, giving a depth of seriousness to the scene at the opening of Act Two where, after Claudio has denounced him as a traitor, Ottone turns to each character in turn and each rejects him (a scenic construction that Handel would re-visit in Tamerlano), and then Ottone has a large-scale aria lamenting his fate. This is one of the largest arias in the opera, in a style which could become familiar in Handel's later operas. Ainslie sang it directly to the audience, without any visual distractions, and took advantage of the intimate acoustics to give a performance of great subtlety. This reflected Ainslie's approach throughout the opera, and the subtlety of his approach gave great depth to a character who can sometimes come over as rather a wet weekend, but not hear.

Handel: Agrippina - Raffaele Pe - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Raffaele Pe - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Stefanie True was a delight as Poppea, throwing off the character's roulades with ease whilst giving a fully rounded performance of what Winton Dean referred to as one of Handel's 'sex kitten' roles. Poppea is very much a precursor of character like Cleopatra, dazzling for their sexuality yet capable of warmth and depth too. True's achievement was to make Poppea something more than just a flirt and you felt that the ending, with Poppea and Ottone being joined, was more than a cynical lieto fine.

Claudio is a wonderfully anti-heroic role, with his pursuit of Poppea full of low comedy. Ashley Riches brought a nice comic style to his middle-aged man gone to seed, relishing the character's lack of dignity. Yet Riches did not stint on style when it came to the music, singing with nicely focused and vivid tone, and making the rage scene in Act Three really count.

The two courtiers, Narciso and Pallante, were brilliantly differentiated by James Hall and Alex Otterburn, combining to make a great double act with some stylish singing. Whilst Matthew Best provided strong support as Claudio's servant Lesbo.

The real joy of this production was the way the cast combined a high standard of Handelian singing with a very real sense of drama. This was opera seria as gripping drama, with strong individual and ensemble performances, in a way that does not always happen. There were occasional moments when you wondered why something happened (why was Nerone dressed as a wrestler for his scene with Poppea, for instance) but the strength and vividness of the character interactions swept all doubts away.

In the pit Robert Howarth drew a lively and responsive performance from the Academy of Ancient Music, taking advantage of the theatre's size to allow the music to speak without bellowing. A couple of times, the coordination between pit and stage came slightly awry in the faster passagework, but overall this was an experience which was both enjoyable and vividly engaging.

Handel: Agrippina - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
With this production following upon its lively account of Monteverdi's last year's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria [see my review], The Grange Festival is starting to garner a reputation for interesting re-interpretations of Baroque opera and so next year's production of Handel's Belshazzar, the most dramatic of his oratorios, is highly anticipated.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut  - interview
  • Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North (★★★★½) - music theatre review
  • ‘A well-regulated church music’ - John Eliot Gardiner at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity & warmth - Solomon's Knot at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican  (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Engaging rarity: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Heidenheim (★★★★) - CD review
  • Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at The Grange Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Seriously unusual: Stephen Barlow introduces Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's Alzira - interview
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