Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth
The Grange Festival, Hampshire. 16 June 2018
Handel’s Agrippina was first performed in 1709 during the Venice Carnival when he was just 23. It was towards the end of his three-year stay in Venice and used a considerable amount of borrowed material from Handel and other composers. It was an immediate success, with a further 26 performances, but was not revived again until modern times. It is now considered his first major operatic success. With its story of intrigue, rivalry, and deception in historic Rome, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto for Agrippina is said to reflect his own political rivalry with Pope Clement XI. The plot tells of Agrippina’s ruthless plan to usurp her husband Emperor Claudius and place her son, the youthful Nerone, on the throne. The sexually provocative Poppea joins in the fray in a complex plan to undo Agrippina’ plot, not least in her attempts to discredit Ottone, who Claudius wants to create Emperor as a reward for saving his life. It certainly had many political and cultural undertones at the time, and perhaps still does today.
Jon Bausor’s design and Walter Sutcliffe’s direction sets the opera not only in modern times and dress but in a version of the same modern opera house as the audience. It opened with us looking at a reduced-scale mirror image of The Grange opera house, with Agrippina sitting in one of the stalls seats, visibly working out her forthcoming deceptions (with the aid of a phablet) as the overture played. The raked seating was deconstructed during the course of the performance, mainly through the central revolve which revealed the underside of the seating, an appropriately murky underworld setting for some of the goings-on, and a rather awkwardly low space for many of the performers to crawl through. At the start of the second half (partway through Act 2), doors opened at the rear of the stage to reveal an image of the northern landscape and driveway to The Grange. It was a clever and very effective direction, playing up, but not overdoing the comedy, and allowing each character to develop the nicer sides of their frequently devious characters. It also seemed aimed at satisfying a wide range of opera audience tastes, from the sexy young female (in red) to the camping-it–up male (in pastels), combined with plenty of below-the-belt shenanigans and sexual innuendo.
The touches of comedy included Ottone wearing a ‘Tristan & Isolde’ T-shirt during his intimate scene with Poppea; Nerone wearing the sort of look-at-me jacket worn by the more flamboyant members of the opera audience; the appearance of what I assume was supposed to be a model of the Grange (but had the proportions of the portico all wrong); the partial destruction of said model firstly by a toppled columns, and then by a belligerent Nerone; said Nerone whipping out a string of condom packets prior to his turn with Poppea; said Poppea in a “You say Nerone, I say Ottone / Let’s call the whole thing off” moment; and the various incarnations of Lesbo, latterly as a gamekeeper with a shotgun.
The singing was excellent, notably from the female leads Anna Bonitatibus and Stefanie True (Agrippina and Poppea) both of whom dominated the stage visually and vocally. They were given the finest arias from Handel, many of them real virtuoso showpieces. The roles of Nerone, Ottone, and Narciso are sung by countertenors Raffaele Pe, Christopher Ainslie, and James Hall, the three of them demonstrating the range of the countertenor vocal style, with only one overdoing the vibrato. Ashley Riches was the bemused Claudio, Alex Otterburn was Narciso’s camped up companion Pallante, while Jonathan Best was the bumbling Lesbo, portrayed as a rather dim country squire.
Robert Howarth conducted the Academy of Ancient Music with a fine sense of period style, attention to detail, and an impressive clarity of musical intent to singers and players. Key contributions from the instrumentalists included Leo Duart, oboe, Bojan Čičić, violin, Joseph Crouch, cello, William Carter, theorbo, and Oliver John Ruthven and conductor Robert Howarth, harpsichords. There was a number of cuts to arias and recitatives, the whole thing lasting about three hours.
The Grange itself is an architecturally important early-19th-century Greek Revival building, enveloping a mid-17th-century core. After a 30 year period out of Baring family ownership, it returned to them the 1960s, when they demolished part of it, and in the early 1970s, tried to demolish the whole thing. Fortunately, it was saved and listed Grade 1, principally for its landscape value (the interior having become more-or-less derelict), and passed into the guardianship of English Heritage. Since 1998 Grange Park Opera has been putting The Grange on the musical map, restoring part of the interior and, in 2002 building a multi-award-winning opera house in the former Orangery. In 2016, in a complex story, they were ousted by the landowners, who set up The Grange Festival, under the artistic direction of singer Michael Chance, now in its second year. Luckily for the opera world, Grange Park Opera relocated to West Horsley Place, so there are now two opera companies in central South England rather than one.
Production photos: Robert Workman