Following a highly successful inaugural season last year, The Grange Festival in Hampshire, under Artistic Director Michael Chance CBE, is even more determined to secure their reputation as one of the leading summer music and dance festivals in Europe. The Grange Festival have certainly attracted some major names in both genres, not least Wayne McGregor as Director of Dance, whose productions are a guaranteed sell-out. The first UK opera festival to branch into dance, this will appeal to both musicians and music lovers who divide their time and interest between the two mediums.
Walter Sutcliffe’s class new production of Handel’s first recognised opera masterpiece Agrippina, (premièred in Venice in the 18th century) is witty and vivacious, but it is edged into the stratosphere by the orchestra of The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Roger Haworth and the acclaimed Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus in the leading role, who shines as the wife of Emperor Claudio, a Lady Macbeth-style arch manipulator. Intent upon seeing her tantrum-throwing son, Nerone (Italian counter-tenor Raffaele Pe) become Emperor of Rome, on receiving news that her husband, Emperor Claudius has died at sea, Agrippina is delighted to tell Nerone (son from another marriage) the news, although he seems far less enamoured by the prospect than his ambitious mother.
Agrippina wastes no time in securing the support of Pallante (Alex Otterburn) and Narciso (James Hall), two hapless senate men who have previously confessed their love for her but are unaware of one another, and agree to back Nerone as the next Emperor in exchange for his mother’s romantic promises. All goes well until the servant of Emperor Claudio, Lesbo (Jonathan Best), arrives announcing that Claudio in fact lives and that the commander of the army, Ottone (Christopher Ainslie) saved his life.
As a reward for Ottone’s gallantry, Emperor Claudio pledges him the throne, a double-blow to Agrippina. Her only hope is that Ottone loves the beautiful Poppea (Stefanie True) and is more desirous to win her than the throne. Agrippina, knowing that Claudio is also in love with Poppea thus hatches a further plot to ensure that ultimately Nero is made Emperor.
The pace is energetic, while the revolving stage of steps, which begins as a reflection of our own auditorium, keeps the cast on their toes, quite literally, and the audience constantly entertained by new sets, complete with columns and model Roman architecture that fit perfectly within the setting of The Grange. Jon Bausor’s costumes are meanwhile colourful additions to each character, from Nerone’s sparkly trousers and sneakers, Poppea’s red dress and wedges or Agrippina’s purple prom dress and heels. It seems only Poppea can outwit Aggripina, and the two women battle it out in a thrilling game of cunning. The ultimate feminist opera, it’s a refreshing change to nineteenth century examples and lends itself well to a modern spin.
Most importantly, at no point do the theatrics or staging interfere with our concentration on the score or arias, and what can only be described as sublime vocals, with Bonitatibus, Pe and True (2011 London Handel Singing Competition winner) delivering outstanding performances and mastering the technicalities of Handel with aplomb and seemingly abundant ease. There’s no doubt about it, every component of this Grange Festival revival is an intelligent tribute to a larger than life Baroque opera jewel which we are left wanting to see more often on the opera circuit.
Agrippina as part of The Grange Festival 2018, The Grange, Northington, Alresford, Hampshire SO24 9TG. For more information on this year’s season and to book tickets please visit the website.