The opera planners at the Conservatoire must be rubbing their hands at the current ongoing political turmoil which throws Handel’s early and rarely performed Agrippina sharply into focus. This prequel to Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea is about the deceit and plotting in ancient Rome over who is to succeed Emperor Claudio and assume power. The small problem is that Claudio is not actually dead yet, providing a wealth of deliciously scandalous material that tests not only the singing but the acting skills of the cast, for with the influential Agrippina pulling the strings, sex is the basic currency in the struggle for the top.

<i>Agrippina</i> © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Agrippina
© Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Agrippina, Emperor Claudius’ fourth wife and shockingly (even to the Romans) also his niece, will stop at nothing to see her son, Nerone, become Emperor. She uses her charms to butter up Claudio’s counsellors Pallante and Narciso, proclaims Claudio lost at sea and Nerone Emperor, but plans are dashed as Ottone arrives having saved Claudio who has promised him the throne. The beautiful Poppea, loved by Claudio, Ottone and Nerone provides Agrippina with opportunity to plot anew delivering a huge entertainment for us as the combinations of relationship play out and skulduggery lurks round every corner.

According to American author Dave Barry “the sixties are considered a historic period, just like the Roman Empire”. Director John Ramster might have been thinking of Barry as he set the action in that hedonistic free-running sexual revolution, drawing parallels with the depraved morality of Ancient Rome. Adrian Linford’s simple white atrium set with sliding panels, minimal flown scenery and a few key props was brilliantly let by Chris Davey, conveying change of scene with the least possible fuss allowing Handel’s musical momentum to be unbroken in this two act staging. Poppea’s room with its standard lamps made from bronze mannequins in white fur-lined underwear was an amusing mischievously louche period touch.

<i>Agrippina</i> © Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Agrippina
© Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Emma Mockett as Agrippina was a monstrous character from the outset, a veritable stage presence in her poster red shift, sitting astride and suffocating Nerone’s three-in-a-bed lover with a cushion, dealing out sexual favours to Pallante and Narciso and deftly manipulating the opera’s characters. Lynn Bellamy and Jerome Knox were both splendid in the character roles of Counsellors. Charlie Drummond slinked about seductively as Poppea, fending off Stefan Berkieta’s gruff voiced Claudio, commanding and conveying tenderness and anger in her arias hitting the spot in “Bella pur nel mio diletto”. In a generally very well-sung evening with clear crisp Italian diction, mezzo Svetlina Stoyanova as Nerone stood out as a complete natural in a trouser role, tumbling tousle-haired out of bed at the start in a Rolling Stones tee-shirt, her strong voice completely nailing the ferocious “Nube che fugge dal vento” in a tour de force.   Joanna Harris was a more softly sung, thoughtful Ottone heartbreaking in her aria when shunned by everyone at the end of the first half. In a very busy physical staging for the main cast, Ramster had other characters pepper the action like a silent chorus adding another layer of drama: sinister masked beggars, a proposing couple, various servants in stripy trousers and the banner-waving crowd.

Baroque enthusiast David Watkin conducted his lively band of players arranged in front of the stage rather than in the depths of pit. With space at a premium, David Todd’s harpsichord, with cellist Tadhg Garcia, provided solid continuo in the auditorium stage right while Kristiniina Watt’s theorbo and a second harpsichord backed the arias stage left, natural trumpets and timpani up in the balcony. Bringing the musicians in amongst us made for an intimate and exciting experience, Watkin taking a brisk no-nonsense stately pace and drawing expressive sounds and lovely colours from the oboe and recorders, making the music light, airy, danceable and joyous.

Running just short of three hours, there was plenty of stage action to sustain the momentum, and this ensemble worked together well (Agrippina, Nerone and Poppea are double cast in the run), switching from recitatives to arias with a natural ease. A playful twist on the final curtain suggests Nerone is not at all the wide-eyed innocent portrayed and that in ancient Rome, treachery lurks where least expected. Agrippina is romping bawdy tale of political intrigue stuffed with excellent Baroque arias, so it is a bit of a mystery why it is so seldom performed.