(Grange Festival, Hampshire, 8 June 2018)
Last weekend, on a balmy Hampshire afternoon, H and I donned our cocktail dresses and set off for the first of our two country-house operas this summer. It was time for the Grange Festival near Winchester (not to be confused with Grange Park Opera in West Horsley in Kent, who split from the Grange Festival two years ago in less than amicable circumstances). The Grange Festival have dusted themselves off, and are kicking off their second summer season in stunning style with Handel’s Agrippina. Full of maternal ambition, political intrigue and lustful shenanigans, this opera follows the Roman matriarch as she schemes to manoeuvre her son Nero onto the imperial throne. A dose of plotting makes me a very happy girl, but I was rendered even happier by the quality of the cast, headed by the redoubtable Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina herself. Truly, an evening fit for an emperor.
I hadn’t seen Agrippina before and I’m not familiar with the arias, so I’m afraid you’ll be getting a fairly high-level assessment of the opera. It opens with shock news: the emperor, Claudius (Ashley Riches), is reported lost at sea. Agrippina (Anna Bonitatibus) is Claudius’ wife, but the news fills her with delight rather than grief. Finally, here’s the chance to snaffle the imperial crown for her beloved son Nero (Raffaele Pe). She swiftly calls in her familiars: the two officials Pallante (Alex Otterburn) and Narciso (James Hall), each of whom harbours a tendresse for the empress and is easily sweet-talked into supporting Nero’s claim. Nero himself is so thrilled at the thought of having absolute power that he consents to everything Agrippina tells him: he’ll make humble speeches to the mob; he’ll show off his piety; he’ll promise whatever they want. And so the remaining imperial family and their courtiers go forth to break the news to their people. But there’s a spanner in the works. Just as Agrippina is about to announce her sorrowful news, a messenger turns up. It’s Lesbo (Jonathan Best), Claudius’s sidekick. Good news! Turns out Claudius isn’t dead after all: he was saved by the nobleman Ottone (Christopher Ainslie). Oh, and in gratitude for that, Claudius has made Ottone the heir to the throne.
Naturally, this isn’t what Agrippina wants to hear. But how is she going to scotch Claudius’ fondness for his new favourite? She develops a cunning plan. She knows that Claudius has a passion for the pretty young socialite Poppea (Stefanie True), but she also knows that Poppea is repulsed by her elderly would-be lover and that the girl’s heart belongs to Ottone. There’s something in this, if only Agrippina can take advantage of it, and exploit the power of sexual jealousy to corrupt Claudius’ and Ottone’s bromance. It just so happens that Agrippina’s son Nero also has a crush on Poppea, but he doesn’t really stand a chance with her at the moment (there were many, many times during the opera when I felt I was watching a ‘prequel’ to L’incoronazione di Poppea). Before long, poor Poppea finds herself dragged into the empress’s machinations, fending off three equally ardent suitors as the Palatine descends into the realms of a sex comedy. Will Agrippina manage to ruin Ottone’s chances? Will Claudius realise that his wife has been scheming behind his back? Will Poppea end up with the right man? So much to play for!
The music was wonderful, although as I said it was all new to me and so I can’t reel off aria titles or anything clever like that (I shall have to buy a recording on DVD and get to know it better). However, all was beautifully paced and played with consummate finesse by The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Robert Howarth. Much, of course, depended on the quality of the singing, but we were in very safe hands. I haven’t heard Anna Bonitatibus live before and her voice is just fantastic. During the interval I found myself struggling to find an adequate way to describe it. “Nutella?” I suggested. “Dark and creamy with a bit of moreish sweetness.” (H seemed unimpressed by my culinary metaphor.) Bonitatibus is a powerful singer but she never sacrifices subtlety: her voice was the strongest on the stage and yet you felt all the colours in it, taking Agrippina from triumph to anxiety and beyond into the stress of Machiavellian plotting. As an actor, Bonitatibus was also compelling: the small space of the Grange Festival auditorium meant that acting mattered here more than in many of the staged productions I’ve seen, and she brought you completely into her world. A tour-de-force of performance in every way. I feel terrifically lucky to have seen her and must now go and buy her CDs.
However, despite Bonitatibus’s sheer class, the show was stolen quite shamelessly by Raffaele Pe. I was impressed by him in Hipermestra, but he seemed to be having the time of his life here. His voice still isn’t the strongest countertenor in the box, but it’s well-controlled and beautifully modulated and he can handle coloratura like a dream. He sings with virtually no vibrato, so the sound is crisp and clear as a bell. Yet he’s also a terrific actor. Nero’s main role in Agrippina is to be his mother’s puppet, and yet Pe padded out the role by chewing the scenery with gusto and basically foreshadowing the emperor’s terrifying later years. He was exuberant, but never hammy. It was a wonderful comedic turn, adding further humour to an opera which probably could be played as very dark, but which here became a rather glorious farce. If you get the chance to see Pe live, take it: he’s well worth the money.
Funnily enough, Ottone is just as wet in Agrippina as he is in Poppea, and even Christopher Ainslie couldn’t save our would-be emperor from coming across as a bit emo. The closest Ottone gets to humour is hiding behind a column while Poppea pretends to be in love with someone else. He is the opera character that composers love to hate. Ainslie didn’t impress me quite as much as he has on previous occasions, such as Giulio Cesare or Joseph and his Brethren, but it can’t be easy sharing the stage with Pe in full-on Nero mode. He did, however, have a convincingly sweet chemistry with True’s Poppea, who managed to be both soulful and sexy. Poppea comes across as a bit of a schemer in her own opera, but here in Agrippina she seems very much the tool of others: the victim of Agrippina’s machinations, and the object of men’s desires. True made a perfect juxtaposition with Bonitatibus, dressed in hot-pants and wedges while the empress wafted around in sharp gowns and suits, like a Mafia version of Jackie Kennedy. Her Poppea was sweet-voiced, not quite a soubrette, but plausibly light and pretty, and I liked True’s acting, which suggested that Poppea is an adolescent girl beginning to learn how to control the forces that control her. She’ll go far (briefly).
Ashley Riches made a blundering, graceless Claudius – more likely to found crawling round the hypercausts of the palace in search of Poppea’s bedroom than to be giving judgement from his throne. Yet his resonant, colourful bass gave the emperor a bit of dignity – all too often undermined by Riches’s excellent sense of comic timing. As the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Palatine, Otterburn and Hall were very enjoyable as the slightly slimy civil servants, driven by personal ambition as much as by lust for the delectable Agrippina. Hall’s voice is stronger and more controlled than I remember, although it’s tough to be third countertenor in this kind of company. Thinking more broadly, servants don’t come off terribly well in this: Best’s Lesbo was equally slimy, a doddery old lecher who sees how things are going and – to his credit – seeks to thwart them for his master Claudius.
What I’m trying to convey is that the singing was all very good, but that acting played a huge role in my enjoyment of the evening. There were little visual jokes too, mostly courtesy of Ottone. He turns up in Part I wearing a Tristan and Isolde t-shirt from Bayreuth; in Part II, the theme of doomed lovers continues when we find him reading Romeo and Juliet. Ottone, my old chum: that’s the universe telling you that it just isn’t going to work with Poppea… The set was clever too, with the curtain rising on an auditorium that mirrored the one in which the audience sat. The seats gave way in Part II to collapsing columns, mini architectural models and the warrens beneath the palace – all thanks to a clever rotating stage. The designer Jon Bausor and director Walter Sutcliffe have clearly pulled out all the stops available to a comparatively very small opera house – and the result is something rather fabulous. We had such a wonderful time, and I’ve come away brimming over with enthusiasm about Bonitatibus and Pe. In fact, as we spent the following day denuding the second-hand bookshops of Winchester (all right, I say ‘we’, I mean ‘I’), it turned out to be a practically perfect weekend.
Do keep an eye on the Grange Festival’s programming. It’s great to see a Baroque opera in that kind of intimate, but perfectly proportioned space, and they are clearly committed to getting some great singers for their shows. Plus, the experience is glorious, from the picturesquely weather-worn Palladian house to the cakes and champagne available to buy in the grounds to supplement your picnic (or your sit-down dinner, if you’ve decided to take the posh route). It was a luxury treat to start the summer; but it isn’t the last. H and I are now eagerly looking forward to our next (massively exciting!) country-house opera: Glyndebourne and Giulio Cesare in a month or so.