Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto to Handel’s opera Agrippina vividly recreates first-century Rome and is peopled by a colourful array of preposterous, self-serving characters bent on amorous and political gain. On the strength of this sharply focused new production, and tailor-made for the Grange Festival, no one could ever accuse Handel of being dull. Its glorious music, political satire and imaginative staging make this an absolute must-see production.

Anna Bonitatibus (Agrippina)
© Robert Workman

Aside from being a magnificent study of maternal ambition, Agrippina offers its anti-heroine one of the great female roles in all Handel. Her determination to secure the imperial throne for her son Nero sets in motion the work’s sexual intrigue and Mafioso-style contracts. After hearing of the unexpected return of her husband, the Emperor Claudio, with his promise to appoint Ottone as his successor, she pursues her aim ever more ruthlessly. But she doesn’t reckon with the flirtatious and wily Poppea (lusted after by Claudio and Nero and cherished by Ottone), whose claim that “those that deceive end up deceived” is fully realised at the end.

Stefanie True (Poppea) and Raffaele Pè (Nerone)
© Robert Workman

Deception, or at least illusion, is artfully woven into this resourceful staging by director Walter Sutcliffe and designer Jon Bausor who fully exploit Grange Park’s imposing facade and Doric columns. It doesn’t take long to realise this production is as much about the ambiguity between appearance and reality as it is about conspiracy and corruption – ideas that slip easily into this updated setting in modern dress. The opening scene reveals rows of tiered seating (as if in a flea pit) mirroring the auditorium and enabling us to see our own agendas reflected in Agrippina’s machinations. That we are made to laugh at ourselves too is clear from Nero’s attempts to curry favour with the citizens of Rome asserting to this well-groomed audience “I would gladly swap places with your poverty”. Lines between appearance and reality blur still further after the interval (part way through Act 2) when the rear of the elevated stage reveals a verdant landscape belonging not to ancient Rome but to the Grange itself.

Raffaele Pè (Nerone), James Hall (Narciso), Alex Otterburn (Pallante), Anna Bonitatibus (Agrippina)
© Robert Workman

Elements of farce underpin much of the action whether in the seedy underworld of sexual liaison explicitly portrayed below stage, or when a shotgun-wielding Claudio dressed as a country squire topples a column which partially fractures a model of a Roman Temple (or is it really The Grange?) thereby anticipating his own collapse and Rome’s decline. It’s not all Carry On-style comedy, as moments of serious emotion allow pause for thought and give opportunities for some fabulous performances from a strong team of eight singers.

Chief amongst these is Anna Bonitatibus as a fiercely confident and vocally agile Agrippina (her opening number “L’alma mia fra le tempeste” was astonishing), whose expressive range fully inhabited a changing persona; her self-doubt in “Pensieri” was as compelling as her fake devotion in Se vuoi pace, o volto amato”. Raffaele Pè as the brattish Nero is a commanding, neurotic presence and he sailed through his castrato arias with incisive tone, nearly stealing the show in his coloratura “Come nube” with its brilliant orchestral writing. This gyrating, leather-clad monster could seduce and strut like nobody’s business.

Raffaele Pè (Nerone)
© Robert Workman

Stefanie True was a clear-voiced and come-hither Poppea, yet artfully fended off the attentions of others and saved her most radiant and fleet-footed singing for “Se giunga un dispetto”. As her suitor Christopher Ainslie was a mellifluous Ottone, not always persuasive in his expressive range but giving an admirably noble Act 2 lament with its soulful oboe obbligato. Alex Otterburn (Pallante) and James Hall (Narciso) were immensely entertaining as the obsequious government lackeys, and Ashley Riches as the ineptly philandering Claudio delivered the gentle “Vieni O cara” whilst crawling around with his trouser around his ankles – comedy gold.

Under Robert Howarth’s energetic direction, the Academy of Ancient Music breathed plenty of life into Handel’s early masterpiece, and with singing and staging as eye-catching as this, the Grange Festival has found in Agrippina a real gem, its music and grubby intrigues ideally realised.