Agrippina review at Grange Festival, Hampshire – ‘lively and entertaining’
Anyone who finds Handel’s more famous operas po-faced and burdened with endless da capo arias will appreciate Agrippina’s relative brevity and snappier pace.
A hit at its 1710 Venice premiere, this fiction-loosely-based-on-fact tale of sexual intrigue and power politics in ancient Rome is also unusually fun – perfect fare for summer country house opera.
Walter Sutcliffe’s new production for Hampshire’s Grange Festival is set, unobtrusively, in a modern theatre auditorium, the raked levels allowing variety of dramatic positioning and a dingy under-area perfect for the opera’s many clandestine meetings.
The two women in the eight-strong cast call all the shots, and make the biggest impression. Most of the cast are youngish up-comers; Agrippina herself – scheming wife of Emperor Claudio – is established star Anna Bonitatibus, supreme classiness oozing from every vocal phrase. Ostensibly a Machiavellian figure, it’s impossible not to root for her as she plots to instal her son Nero on the throne. With her stunning voice and sassy demeanour, Stephanie True’s hot pants-wearing Poppea is more than a spoilt sex-kitten – like Mozart’s Susanna, she’s a bright spark who ensures justice triumphs.
Jon Bausor’s costumes are spot-on, from fay acolyte Narciso’s lilac trousers (James Hall) to Nero’s bejewelled t-shirts (Raffaele Pe, channelling Russell Brand).
The tone is suitably irreverent, and thanks too to the excellent Academy of Ancient Music and Robert Howarth’s energetic conducting, the show zips happily along, all-but pitch-perfect. The last of too many blow-job jokes, accompanied by an Up Pompeii-esque swanee whistle, raises not even a titter, but that’s a rare misfire. If only all baroque opera was this entertaining.