Apparently, Nicola Porpora’s debut opera L’Agrippina hasn’t been performed in full since its 1708 première. Therefore, I applaud The Barber Opera for this undertaking. It is important and brave to stage full productions of relatively unknown works of historical interest. Profit motives shy away from such risks, and unless we have full productions such as this we simply do not know what we are missing. To drive the point home, a display in the foyer of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts proudly boasts of previous productions of ‘lost’ operas they have revived to greater acclaim, most notably Handel’s Xerxes. In some ways, but not all, the risk paid off with Porpora’s opera too.

There were some truly wonderful moments in L’Agrippina that I was glad to experience. Unfortunately, these moments were sandwiched between lengthy and somewhat uninspiring plot expositions, and set against a stage decorated with an ugly and irrelevant giant Meccano frame and two budget gauze panels.

The plot was cumbersome. I seldom, if ever, look at a programme during a performance. In this case I was one of many in the audience who were constantly referring to it to figure out who loved who, who hated who, and why. Wisely, a production decision was taken to perform the recitatives in English, and this also helped those of us to follow the narrative. Thankfully the arias, focussing on emotive expression rather than plot development, were in the original tongue and so much the better for it.

Part of the reason the plot was wearisome to follow was because Porpora’s L’Agrippina is different from Handel’s Agrippina. She is the less well-known mother of the other, or Agrippina the Senior if you prefer. She begins as the wife of the general in command of the Roman army, Germanico, and mother to a noble son, Caligola. Her aspirations for her family’s future are dashed when two tribunes, Giunio and Settimo, stage a coup. Love and power intrigues quickly follow as Giunio tries to woo Agrippina to cuckold the deposed and humiliated Germanico. Meanwhile Settimo’s daughters Giulia and Orestilla are besotted with Germanico and Caligola respectively, with Giulia’s affections being largely but not entirely unrequited. Thrown into the mix are two vibrant servants, Planco and Armilla. The sagacious Planco vies for Armilla’s affections, but finds to a certain extent that he has met his match. All of this gives rise to 48 arias in three acts lasting nearly four hours.

It is testament to the performers’ stamina that their voices never fatigued at all, for this was a vocal treat in the highly ornate Baroque style. Porpora was a renowned singing teacher, and this opera was clearly a vehicle for the exhibition of the virtuosity he taught. All nine of the cast members adeptly accepted the challenge and rose to the occasion so well that it is hard to pick out those deserving a special mention. However, forced to choose, I would note the mezzo-soprano Katie Stevenson in the title-role, soprano Raphaela Papadakis as Orestilla, soprano Charlotte Beament as Armilla and bass-baritone Marc Labonette as the irrepressible Planco. Indeed, it was not only the voices of Labonette and Beament that sparkled, but their acting ability too. Generally, the direction held little in term of on-stage physicality. Labonette and Beament physically exploited their roles to bring light relief to an otherwise fairly dour libretto. Their domination of the available space, including at one-point encroaching into the orchestra pit, was a rare example of engrossing theatrics in what otherwise simply amounted to a bel canto song fest.

This production lacked spectacle. There was precious little in terms of acting generally, or lighting, set design, props or costumes. In fairness, this was not a lavish commercial production, but an academic attempt at a revival. Ticket prices reflected this, being remarkably low for such a high-quality cast. There could hardly be much left in the kitty for indulgences. Nonetheless, this was minimalism begging for a feature. The gauze screens and basic projected lighting failed to adequately support the performers.

I left the theatre pleased that I had experienced something rare, the first performance of an opera in 300 years. It was a privilege to be able to expose oneself to a forgotten episode of the rich culture of Porpora and bel canto, despite the sparse production and lack of spectacle. For that I must thank Musical Director Andrew Kirkman. He would do well to record the whole opera for posterity with the same wonderful cast of singers, ably accompanied by The Musical and Amicable Society Baroque Orchestra. I would be interested in the ‘Selected Highlights’ edition of such a recording. Alas, for me, it is in posterity that the full-scale L’Agrippina is likely to remain.