Written in Venice in 1709, Agrippina was the last opera composed by Handel for an Italian theatre. It is also the first Handelian opera whose score managed to survive in its entirety to modern times. Its plot follows the Venetian tradition of theatrical works that present Rome, the Eternal City, as a swamp of deceit and political plots.

<i>Agrippina</i> © Annemarie Augustijns
Agrippina
© Annemarie Augustijns

When news arrives in Rome that the Emperor Claudio is dead, his wife Agrippina seizes the opportunity to promote Nero, her son from a previous marriage, to the throne. Claudio is actually alive, saved by Ottone, who has been designated as Claudio's heir for his efforts. This is the start of an intricate series of lies, deceit and tricks. Agrippina kindles a rivalry between Claudio and Ottone, both of whom are in love with the same woman, Poppea. Agrippina persuades Poppea that Ottone doesn't love her, and manipulates her to her own advantage.

Poppea eventually becomes aware of Agrippina's lies and, in a scene worthy of Le nozze di Figaro, she receives all three of her lovers (the third being Nerone) in her room, hiding them in various closets, so that she can prove Agrippina's scheming to Claudio. The emperor, more weak and inane than magnanimous, chooses forgiveness over vengeance for the classic happy ending: Nerone will be Claudio’s heir, while Juno descends from the heavens to celebrate the marriage of Ottone and Poppea.

<i>Agrippina</i> © Annemarie Augustijns
Agrippina
© Annemarie Augustijns

Opera Vlaanderen, in Antwerp, revives a production by Mariame Clément from 2012, where the story is set as the soap opera Dallas or Dynasty. This is the same idea underlying David McVicar's Agrippina of 1999, seen at the Liceu in Barcelona as late as 2013. While the plot does scream "American soap opera", it seems odd to see two productions of the same work that echo each other this much. Nevertheless, the production is thoroughly enjoyable. The sets are simple, the scenes are changed in plain sight, and the video projections are original and insightful, albeit a bit distracting. The costumes are one of the best features: Agrippina's displays a series of fantastic 1980s power suits (pure Joan Collins) and glittery evening gowns.

The period orchestra, under the baton of conductor and violinist Stefano Montanari, started with a somewhat intimate, subdued overture; then it warmed up to a powerful sound which supported the singers without overpowering them. Montanari often conducted while playing his violin, his interventions beautiful and heartfelt. The beautiful oboe solos stood out during the arias sung by Agrippina, “L'alma mia fra le tempeste” and “Pensieri”.

Ann Hallenberg was a great Agrippina. Her voice is well suited to the part; she has an impressive legato and a confident coloratura. But the most striking feature of her performance was her interpretation. She completely inhabited the character, becoming an Agrippina of the 1980s before our very eyes. She was the perfect embodiment of every intelligent, talented, ambitious woman who could not advance her own status, but had to pursue her ambitions by pampering and catering to the mediocre men surrounding her. Her spectacularly communicative eye rolls expressed the frustration of us all, and her absurdly complicated schemes became almost understandable.

<i>Agrippina</i> © Annemarie Augustijns
Agrippina
© Annemarie Augustijns

Poppea was the young Russian soprano Dilyara Idrisova. At first glance, her voice sounded a bit monotonous, although with a beautiful sound and a solid technique. As the evening moved on, she tackled the very difficult arias written for her character with a golden, shiny-bright sound, adorned with facile, round high notes and a brilliant coloratura. Her Act 1 aria “Se giunge un dispetto was amazing. She left the impression that her career will be well worth following.

Renata Pokupić sang the role of Nero, Agrippina's son. The role was written for a not very talented countertenor, so it features slower lyrical arias, with the glaring exception of the last number: “Come nube che fugge dal vento”. Pokupić's voice sounded somewhat overpowered by the rest of the cast and by the orchestra in general, but the coloratura was good. Her interpretation of the inept young boy was convincing.

Ottone was played by the countertenor Tim Mead, who performed with ease and spontaneity and featured a natural Italian pronunciation. His voice was one of the highlights of the performance. Bálint Szabó's Claudio started on a rough path, with intonation problems (soon resolved) and a general lack of sophistication, although the voice is beautiful. Honourable mention goes to Evgeny Solodonvnikov (Lesbo) and Raehann Bryce-Davis (Juno), both young members of the Ensemble Opera Vlaanderen, who, despite the small roles, came through with a strong performance and managed to enliven their characters.