Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
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Suitably scheming and conniving

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Agrippina
International Handel Festival Göttingen
15 May 2015

There is only one word which even begins to describe Agrippina, and that is ‘conniving’, with all the negative connotations it bears. As the heroine of Handel’s opera of everyday life in the Roman Imperial household, the wife of emperor Claudio has one aim in life, and that is to get her darling son (by a previous marriage) Nerone on the imperial throne. It looks like Fate is going her way, when she hears that Claudio has died in a storm at sea …

In this new production for the International Handel Festival Göttingen, directed by Laurence Dale, Tom Schenk’s set is sparse, with a column and a throne to represent Rome. A detail from a Turner painting provides the backcloth for the storm and there are two large hollow boxes the height of the stage, mirrored on one side, which are turned to provide walls for the various locations within the palace.

Robby Duiveman’s costumes look a bit like a children’s raid on the dressing-up box, but they work. Boy, do they work. As Narcisco, Owen Willetts, in silver doublet over pale, skinny jeans and half-skirt (the back half) and wearing a very Seventies glam rock quiff, is really cute – when he is not being petulant, or sycophantic. His fellow side-kick Pallante, is sung by Ross Ramgobin in blue satin. Pallante doesn’t half fancy himself and the competition between him and Narcisco for the attention of Agrippina is keen. Willetts’ rich countertenor blends well with Ramgobin’s robust baritone.

Ronaldo Steiner plays Lesbo, the servant of Claudio, as a rather bored equerry, who would rather be elsewhere and, as a result, is not quite here, either.

Lame, overweight Claudio, with his hollow-eyed, washed-out face, still affects a vanity combover in João Fernandes’ masterly performance. He makes an appropriate meal out of his bottom notes, as if to prove the old man still can do it, and almost gets an audience cheer when he does.

Nerone, Agrippina’s darling, is ginger and precociously over-sexed. He first appears in prep-school uniform – red, bound with gold – and then in the most amazing red ruched bloomers. His relationship with his mother is probably closer than is healthy, but he is after anything in a skirt –sometimes with fatal consequences. Jake Arditti is puckish, with a constantly expressive face commenting on the action, but with a gorgeous voice to go with the costume.

Blonde ice-maiden in cool cream voile, Ida Falk Winland gives Poppea a stillness, from which her anguish and moral dilemmas emerge naturally. In love with Ottone, sought by Claudio,and offered to Nerone, she is a pawn in Agrippina’s scheming. There is a languorous intensity in her love scenes with Ottone, the straight man in the piece. Christopher Ainslie has some lovely bits to sing, and his Act 2 scene with Poppea pretending to be asleep by a murmuring brook is delicious. Their love scene at the beginning of Act 3, over-run as it is by Nerone and Claudio, is also achingly tender, with lighting like sunrise through Venetian blinds.

Ulrike Schneider’s Agrippina schemes throughout, playing one against another. Majestic in wide-hooped black, faced with mauve – except for one scene in her nightdress, where she and Claudio are two elderly people together – she never misses an opportunity to star, even including the audience, when the mirrors turn on the auditorium.

In the pit, the Festspiel Orchester, directed by Laurence Cummings, is excellent. It’s a long opera, and the music keeps driving along, but with no sense of hurry.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Theodoro da Silva
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