★★★★½ Brilliantly dirty doings in baroque opera’s Game of Thrones.

Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane
April 8, 2016

Ever wondered what Game of Thrones: the Opera might be like? Well, wonder no more, for Brisbane Baroque’s follow up to last year’s Helpmann Award-winning Faramondo is a marvellously pitch-black production of Handel’s first big hit, Agrippina, and it has more dirty doings going on than Westeros on an average Saturday night. Not that it’s any darker than history. If we would believe Suetonius, the real Agrippina bedded, in order, her brother (Caligula), her uncle (Claudius) and her son (Nero) before getting her comeuppance by the sword following a desperate swim to shore after Nero had booby-trapped her ship (he’d already tried killing her with the old collapsing bed trick!)

Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina and Russell Harcourt as Nerone

In Handel’s opera, written for Venice as part of his Grand Tour in 1709, the evil Imperatrix is shown endlessly scheming to get her beastly progeny onto the throne while simultaneously extracting him from the arms of the equally duplicitous Poppea. Like Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (effectively the sequel to Agrippina), it’s a marvellously amoral tale in which the dastardly triumph and we, the audience, revel in watching them do so.

British tenor turned director Laurence Dale has form in Baroque opera – he recorded a brilliant Orfeo for René Jacobs back in the day – and in this sharp-as-a-thumbtack staging he proves that he’s not just got the lungs, he’s got the brains as well. Tom Schenk’s simple but effective set comprises a handsome Turner-esque back cloth and a pair of mirror-surfaced sliding boxes that can be manipulated to form corridors for the lurking in or, in a dazzling bit of theatricality, be used to catch and reflect the image of the audience – for what is politics if not a form of theatre? Robby Duiveman’s attractive set of costumes places us somewhere between a Jacobean tragedy and French farce, and the whole thing is imaginatively lit by Richard Stuart. Nice surtitles too, which take a few liberties – Nero’s priapic aria Coll’ardor del tuo bel core comes out as “In a matter of moments I’ll be getting it” – but generally hit the nail on the head.

Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina and Keri Fuge as Poppea

Agrippina exists in a dangerous world where men have power, but seem to want nothing but sex. Women, on the other hand, want power but have only sex as a weapon, and seem generally happy to deploy it left, right and centre. In Dale’s stylish production there’s no man who isn’t on the prowl, and nobody (male or female) is left un-groped. Meanwhile he manages to avoid any charge of sexism by showing it all for what it is – a desperate battle of the sexes where absolutely anything goes if you want to sit on the throne.

He’s not afraid to abstract the odd moment for dramatic effect, but his greatest skill is recognising that baroque opera can take its time (three-and-a-half hours in this case) and that you don’t have to over-egg the pudding with lashings of extraneous business. In other words, he trusts the drama and his cast to tell the story without recourse to gimmickry. He’s also unafraid to go very dark indeed in what is essentially a comedy. Sex can be dangerous as well as funny, or as Richard III says: “I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”. Oh, and you have to see the hysterical postlude, which acts out the next couple of years in 30 seconds!

Dale’s diverse, international cast is mightily impressive. Heading the list is German mezzo Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina, a consummate actress who really gets her teeth into the recitative, while keeping plenty of vocal fireworks up her sleeve for the arias. Clad in vampire black with matching gloves, purple collar and bejewelled headdress, she can be mistress or minx, parent or politician. She broods, teases, schemes and smiles in equal measure, always the cleverest person in the room, yet in a brilliantly conceived scene reminiscent of Lady Macbeth she appears a haunted, dishevelled figure, her wisps of white hair trailing for all to see. Watching the developing relationships with her creepy son, her doltish husband, the preening counsellors and the smart, but not quite smart enough, Poppea, is an absolute pleasure. Arias like the jaunty L’alma mia fra te tempeste (which comes with its own wind machine), the rollicking Ogni vento ch’al porto lo spinga and the lovely, lyrical Se vuoi pace, o volto amato are carried off with dash, but it’s the dramatic Act II recitativo accompagnato (Pensieri voi mi tormentate) that lingers.

João Fernandes as Claudio and Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina

Equal acting honours have to go to Portuguese bass-baritone João Fernandes as her hapless combover-sporting consort Claudio whose performance bears comparison with the great Derek Jacobi in the legendary TV series. Waddling around the stage like some lascivious Shakespearean owl with the dropsy, he manages to capture the foolish lusts of a silly old man, while keeping us feeling on the sorry side for someone who is laughed at and feared in equal measure. For an ostensibly comic character, his arias are among the opera’s finest and he gives an engaging performance as he begs for a furtive fumble under the toga in the romantic Vieni, o cara, while the comically lengthy Cade il mondo soggiogato is an acting master class in musical windbaggery.

The sexual firecracker and wannabe empress Poppea is played with great style by British soprano Keri Fuge. Her ten arias grow in breadth and confidence as the night goes on, and she’s undaunted by either having to sing while playing the dominatrix or rolling off of a bed in the middle of a bit of rumpy-pumpy mid aria. She sparkles in glittering numbers like Se giunge un dispetto and the matching Bel piacere e godere, while her long sequence of arias and duets with Ottone in Act II are rightly at the musical heart of the opera. As her lover, Ottone (the only morally decent character in the piece), Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli impresses here as much as he did when visiting Sydney last year with Les Arts Florissants. He’s a fine actor and a thrilling vocalist, his ample voice riding the orchestra, yet clear and detailed in his decorations and subtle in recitative. Whether upbeat in his optimistic Coronato il crin d’altro, lyrical in the pastoral Vaghe fonti, or plangent in the great Act II lament Voi che udite il mio lamento, he demonstrates a striking emotional range.

 As Agrippina’s petulant, delinquent offspring, Australian countertenor Russell Harcourt channels in equal parts Johnny Rotten and the ghastly Joffrey Baratheon (from the aforementioned Game of Thrones). His acting is first rate, whether libidinous lecher or sinister psycho-in-waiting, and his vocal fireworks have an appropriately hysterical edge. The highest of the evening’s three countertenors, he sings with easy confidence while having great fun with a dildo in Act III – ahem…  

Owen Willetts as Narciso, Ross Ramgobin as Pallante, Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina and Russell Harcourt as Nerone

Puffed up counsellors Narciso (all quiff and no scruples) and Pallante (all crotch and no brains) are buffo delights in the hands of a pair of British singers: countertenor Owen Willetts and bass Ross Ramgobin. They make a terrific double act, languishing for Agrippina and fawning over Claudio by turns. The preening Willets has a beautifully fruity lower range, while Ramgobin, whose enhanced pelvic bundle has a will of its own, is vocally firm and strong. Ronaldo Steiner makes up the fine cast of nine with a nice line in virile swordsmanship as Claudio’s henchman, Lesbo.

Musically the production is in excellent hands with Erin Helyard at the helm of the Orchestra of the Antipodes. Agrippina is full of ideas that Handel would go on to borrow or develop in his next batch of operas and cantatas – there are even some he would recycle late in life – and for devotees it’s fun to play ‘spot the reference”. Helyard’s continuo group (Anton Baba on cello, Anthony Abouhamad on second harpsichord and Josep Maria Martí Duran on archlute and guitar) are a real standout, moulding the recitative to enormous effect and ensuring the pace never flags. His attention to orchestral detail is notable as ever – just listen to his way with Agripinna’s swinging waltz-time Ogni vento, or the creepy strings in her Lady Macbeth sequence. The stabbing dissonances in Ottone’s lament are delicately acidic, while the unpredictably accented beats in Claudio’s Io di Roma il Giove sono keep the number packed full of life.

Getting an opera audience to laugh while their flesh is creeping is no mean feat. There’s a moment at the Act of Act II when the Machiavellian Empress thinks she’s about to get her wicked way at last. As she commands the screens to part for her to mount the throne, she discovers her dissolute son making love on the floor. The unfortunate girl in question is dead, strangled earlier in a rather nasty bout of ‘love-making’. Agrippina glances apologetically to the audience as if to say, “Honestly, what can you do?” before drawing a veil over the tawdry scene. It’s deliciously innapropriate, entirely funny and black as pitch. With great music, stellar cast and superb theatre, Helpmann Award hopefuls beware – Agrippina has you in her sights!

Agrippina is at Brisbane Baroque until April 16

Agrippina Tickets