During the recent, tumultuous Australian Labor Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard, the country was occasionally supposed to be offered glimpses of “The Real Julia”. Reality is a rare thing in politics these days. So “The Real Julia” probably only emerged when she let her flaming red hair down and made her famous misogyny speech attacking one of her male successors in Parliament. It was so effective, it’s been set to music.

Ulrike Schneider (Agrippina) © Darren Thomas
Ulrike Schneider (Agrippina)
© Darren Thomas

I suspect that Englishman Laurence Dale’s Göttingen Festival production of Handel’s Agrippina, now presented as the feature item in the second Brisbane Baroque Festival, is also based around that political – and personal – void between appearance and reality. For surely one of the great advantages of interpreting a Baroque opera is the time between its writing and today and the freedom this gives to be uncaring of the creators’ original intentions. In Agrippina's case anyway, the libretto by Cardinal Grimani is thought to relate to some dispute he was having with his Pope in 1709, but no one seems to know the details.

Dale’s last appearance in Australia was as Don José in Peter Brook’s superbly dramatic, chorus-less production of Carmen at a Perth Festival. He knows how to direct opera as theatre.

We have the outrageous titular lady herself, Agrippina, sung by Gottingen’s Ulrike Schneider, who appears to be solely concerned with arranging to replace her current husband Claudio as Roman Emperor with her son Nerone, who may also be her incestuous lover. Towards the end, however, we’re almost persuaded by her aria “If you want peace, rid yourself of Poppea” into thinking that returning her husband to the uxorial bed from straying with Poppea may be an alternative motive.

Ulrike Schneider (Agrippina) and Keri Fuge (Poppea) © Darren Thomas
Ulrike Schneider (Agrippina) and Keri Fuge (Poppea)
© Darren Thomas

Mind you, by then we’ve also seen “The Real Agrippina” unveiled as her plots unravel; balding, with sagging sex appeal and a daggy nightdress rather than the black power outfit designed to impress and entice the public; a shocking coup de théâtre by Mr Dale, well supported by designer Tom Schenk’s employment of moveable, mirrors flats.

Claudio, in the surprisingly touching I, Claudius-inspired hands of Joao Fernandes, appears lame, fat-bottomed and a hesitant, if persistent, lover for the apparently willing Poppea. He also appears to care so little about his Imperial role, that he’ll hand it over at the drop of hat. But the Imperial blood still flows: “I am the Jupiter of Rome,” he declares; and “Let the whole world become subjects of Rome” – a not-unreasonable demand as he returns from conquest in Britain. Imperialism is in the system, not in man.

It may even survive Nero if he can learn that appearances matter more than his louche, spiteful reality. Russell Harcourt, one of three nicely differentiated countertenors in the production, wears red, commedia dell'arte outfits to match his red hair (referencing “The Real Julia”?) to emphasise this inability to dissemble. And Laurence Dale pushes Nerone to the extreme of congress with a maid he’s just murdered, an act that even his mother finds OTT.

Ross Ramgobin (Pallante) and Ulrike Schneider (Agrippina) © Darren Thomas
Ross Ramgobin (Pallante) and Ulrike Schneider (Agrippina)
© Darren Thomas

Rivalling Nerone to succeed Claudio is Carlo Vistoli’s Ottone. Again, he’s far too impolitically real to achieve the office, though naturally wins the audience's support – and admiration for his manly alto singing – every time he’s done down by Agrippina, Nerone, Claudio and even Poppea, whom he adores. Keri Fuse’s performance in this last role is the joker in my pack. For her white outfit and blond locks ought to hide a black heart in my scheme of things (and so her multiple prick-teasing would suggest). But Ottone’s preference for her over the Imperial throne (“As long as I can hold you in my arms”) does lead us to believe in a change of her heart. What would Monteverdi think?

Despite the crazy vigour of the plotting, four hours (down from 4.5 in Göttingen) is a long sing. Fortunately, Handel, reusing material he’d composed during his two youthful years in Italy, barely offers a duff aria throughout. Conversational recitatives in the 17th-century libretto style by Grimani, keep up a pace that dynamic conductor Erin Helyard demanded equally of his local Orchestra of the Antipodes. It could have been the acoustic in the Brisbane hall, but I was discomforted by the slight dominance of the bass/continuo section on Helyard’s right over the higher instruments on his left, not a problem I’ve observed in the Orchestra’s regular home with Pinchgut Opera in Sydney.

Many versions of the Agrippina story were composed at the time, but “Il caro Sassone's" version (as the Venetians called him on the strength of 27 consecutive performances) is the one that’s survived into multiple productions today. Other contemporary versions are wackier, but Laurence Dale’s is touchy-feely although black-hearted. His strong characterisation overcomes the madness of the plot. Ultimately, though, it’s Helyard’s elegant shaping of Handel’s music that justifies this production’s appearance in Brisbane.