The amorality of Handel’s Agrippina has shocked and delighted audiences ever since its première at the Venice Carnival of 1710. Handel’s librettist, Cardinal Grimani, created a world of power games and greedy duplicity which spoke to his contemporaries as much about the nepotistic culture of the Catholic Church as the constant backstabbing of Rome’s imperial court. Looking for a later parallel, director Bruno Ravella has updated the action to the consumerist hell of the 1980s, giving us big hair, shoulder pads, cocaine and ruthlessness in spades. Agrippina, immaculately coiffured and sharply suited, channels Alexis (Joan Collins in Dynasty) as she plots, bargains and schemes to ensure her son, Nerone, is proclaimed heir to Claudio’s throne. Her lovelorn henchmen Pallante and Narciso become a Wall Street banker and a TV presenter respectively: nevertheless, Claudio is still Emperor, a golden laurel wreath topping his grey suit, not the CEO of some faceless corporation. Ravella’s vision creates an atmosphere, rather than changing the fundamentals of the piece, which remain intact – and acidly amusing.

Andrew Slater (Claudio) and Alinka Kozári (Agrippina) © Rob Coles | Iford Arts
Andrew Slater (Claudio) and Alinka Kozári (Agrippina)
© Rob Coles | Iford Arts

Kimm Kovac’s design clothes Iford’s Cloister in mosaic. Casts of Roman emperors are placed at intervals around the square stage, looking simultaneously classical and the epitome of Eighties excess, reminiscent of the faux-classical interiors in Scarface’s millionaire mansion. Props change the scene: a red satin bedspread, gold cushion and full-length mirror create Poppea’s bedroom, while the central well transforms magically into a steaming, backlit jacuzzi for Poppea’s eventual reconciliation with Ottone in “Soothing fountains”. Costumes are fabulous throughout: Ottone walks straight out of Top Gun in his immaculate white naval uniform, while Poppea, the sex kitten whom all men want, gets an eye-popping selection of Eighties dance and sports wear, complete with rainbow leopard leggings, colourful leotard, and even crimped hair (which brought memories of my childhood flooding back).

The Iford Festival Baroque Orchestra make the Cloister resonate with a wonderful period sound, conducted by Christopher Bucknall from the harpsichord: Handel’s strong harmonies and satisfying resolutions come across clearly, with a fullness which makes it hard to believe there are only a dozen instrumentalists. Our talented group of singers take some time to settle, but the singing improves constantly through the evening, promising well for the run. Christopher Cowell’s English translation is neatly rhymed and refreshingly funny: “Looks like we’ve been shafted… You’ve hit it in the bullseye”, the foiled conspirators moan, while Agrippina has “A heart of granite: she’s quite the vilest person on the planet.”

Alinka Kozári is a fiercely maternal Agrippina, exasperated as she combs Nero’s messy hair, chiding him relentlessly to focus on his destiny, a complex balance of the public termagant and the private neurotic. Her hands, wrists and throat glitter with jewels in a selection of stunning outfits: outside ancient Rome, only the conspicuous consumerism of the Eighties allows you to wear rubies the size of a pigeon’s egg and get away with it (even if they are paste). A paranoid fashionista, we see Agrippina sneeringly accept a Ferrero Rocher (naturally) from Poppea, only to spit it instantly into her handbag. Conquering her demanding music with style, Kozári captures Agrippina’s inner vulnerability: when Nerone is proclaimed Emperor in the opera’s closing scene, she is finally left alone on stage, not in triumph, but newly conscious that she has made herself entirely redundant by achieving her goal.

Ciara Hendrick is superb throughout as Nerone, her pure, clear mezzo-soprano showing silken consistency, and portraying the sulky adolescent boy with skilful physicality. In general, this Nerone is an ordinary teenager fed up with his overbearing mother, but we get a hint of his madness to come when, in a fury at Poppea’s ultimate rejection, he sets fire to her bedroom. Rupert Enticknap plays Ottone with sincerity and tenderness from the start: Ottone is always the odd one out in this cast, the only honest man amongst a crowd of thrusting go-getters, and Enticknap conveys his innocence and bewilderment beautifully. His smooth, cool countertenor takes a little time to warm up, but “Soothing fountains” and “Give me justice” are confidently passionate, while “I obey” is note perfect, sounding gorgeously supple and supported, leading into an exquisite love duet with Poppea.

Louise Kemeny (Poppea) and Rupert Enticknap (Ottone) © Rob Coles | Iford Arts
Louise Kemeny (Poppea) and Rupert Enticknap (Ottone)
© Rob Coles | Iford Arts

Louise Kemeny is endearing and appealing as Poppea, acting well and singing with increasing command through the night. Andrew Slater’s bronzed bass makes for a dominant, seductive Claudio: “Hold me, my darling” and “Conquered races” are both seriously good. Tom Verney’s bell-like countertenor is ideal for Handel and for Narciso, his fresh-faced approach always enjoyable, though in his early scenes Ravello only seems to have given him a choice of two facial expressions: Verney is easily capable of far more. Gareth Brynmor John is a nicely oily Pallante in peacock braces, braying into a large mobile phone and telling Agrippina he’ll “sort it”. Bradley Travis is a magnificent Lesbus: a small part, but he makes the most of it, complete with gold medallion and moustache.