Agrippina – HGO at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, London N6
Artillery Row On Opera The Critics

Proper pro opera

Fun with fear and failure

Nothing in opera was ever as much fun as the Venetian variant of the 17th century. Wildly popular — at one point there were 37 opera houses in the joint — it veered gleefully away from the staid Florentine tradition into a world of harum-scarum plots, a multitude of short scenes jumping between characters of entertaining venality (often from history and mythology), a fast-moving, chatty ensemble style sprinkled with arias for a bit of character-development, and a pleasingly frivolous attitude to the border between tragedy and farce. After being ignored for 300 years, some of these pieces have been hauled back into the repertoire for our delight, notably the works of the prolific Francesco Cavalli like Giasone and Callisto. The daddy of them all is Claudio Monteverdi’s Up Pompeii! romp The Coronation of Poppea, where the royal family do appalling things to each other, and the Happy Ending is represented by Nero and his minxy bride ascending the throne surrounded by twitching corpses.

Messrs Bezos and Page possess power of a sort Nero could only dream of

Handel composed Agrippina when the lad was 24, in 1709 at the end of his whirlwind Italian tour (he’d fetch up in England a couple of years later). It is the last flowering of that Venetian style and the prequel to The Coronation, and it centres on Nero’s scheming mama. Hell-bent on getting her boy on the throne (later he will kill her for her trouble), Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius (whom she will kill), sets the three would-be lovers (the above, plus Otho) of court slapper Poppea (eventually to be killed by Nero) at each other’s throats, at one point inciting a triple murder that sadly never happens. It reliably provides three of the most diverting hours you can have in a theatre, and this small-scale production by HGO in Jackson’s Lane Theatre, Highgate, is no different. 

Motored along by a stylish, forceful and efficient little band (with furious, atrociously fast solo work by strings and oboes) conducted by Thomas Payne, this staging by Ashley Pearson transplants things painlessly to a Silicon Valley empire of a familiar sort — and I suppose, correctly viewed, the likes of Messrs Bezos and Page possess power of a sort Nero could only dream of. The frisson of Agrippina (and The Coronation) lies in watching these dreadful people destroying each other, jockeying for money and dominance without the slightest thought for the numberless drones fatally affected by their carry-on. There needs to be a lot at stake for it to work properly, and it helps that we know (at least from the not very reliable Tacitus and Suetonius, whose writings are in the background of the text, as with I, Claudius) what psychos they actually were.

Handel is on brilliantly energetic form here, the whole thing a lesson in how to develop character through the most varied music (an astonishing amount of it cannibalised from his other Italian produce). Astrid Joos, a Belgian soprano with an agile and flexible voice, plays the gift role of this wolverine-mum with all the hand-rubbing joy you’d expect, effortlessly leveraging everyone’s weaknesses. She is full of contempt for the whole world and only fairly fond of her androgynous child Nero, who is played more as flouncy teen than full-on nutjob by the equally impressive Katie Macdonald. The high point is a Lady Macbeth moment of crisis, in an extended scene where she battles (successfully, natch) with fears of disaster and failure: “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”. The orchestra brilliantly paints her jagged spiritual turmoil, but mostly she’s in feline mode. Her character is perfectly nutshelled in the planet-sized irony of her final blandishments to poor Claudius, his scanty brains scrambled by the intricacy of her plotting. “Se vuoi pace,” she sings lullingly, “If you want peace — just do what I want. 

Ottone receives an excruciating pile-on of abuse and rejection by the entire personnel

The effects of all this on Nero and Claudius (a nice turn of thicko vanity by Jacob Bettinelli) hardly matters since their souls are already lost, but there is more interesting collateral damage inflicted on Poppea and her fiancé Otho (Ottone). She is not yet the foxy monster of The Coronation — indeed in Biqing Zhang’s demure performance, something of an ingenue. She is trying to learn how to behave like a human being amidst this hellscape, but gradually being sucked into Agrippina’s unipolar world. Ottone, here and in The Coronation, is the only sympathetic character, afflicted with self-knowledge and a heart. He is Claudius’ chosen successor until Agrippina sees to that — by making him choose between throne and Poppea. Framed by her halfway through as a traitor, Ottone is on the receiving end of an excruciating pile-on of abuse and rejection by the entire personnel, and he responds with the score’s loveliest song: “Voi che udite”. A catalogue of hurt addressed to the audience, it is gentled along in Handel’s most comfort-giving idiom of plangent oboe and layered strings. Counter-tenor Francesco Giusti is a strong and highly musical singer whose slightly peculiar throaty timbre even upped the pathos. 

A very simple design was imaginatively used — nothing but a big dais for cyber-projections and a backing curtain for storms and other effects, with the singers circling this Kaaba-like structure of power or clambering about on it. Director Ashley Pearson knows how to use body-language to create character. She monetised Astrid Joos’ slinky dance-skills effectively in a very physical show that hardly ever tipped over into anything frantic or needy. HGO — formerly Hampstead Garden Opera — is a vital link in our operatic ecosystem, often the first professional outing for very young conservatory singers. For 30 years it has been putting on shows of consistent quality. It’s often the case that such singers are at their best and freshest here, before institutionalised overtraining makes them all sound the same. That, partly, is why this was so much better a show all round than the recent effortful attempt on Handel’s Arminio by the trainee singers on the Jette Parker programme at Covent Garden. HGO doesn’t really need any comparisons, though; this was proper pro opera, and a high-quality lark, in any language.

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