“Agrippina” was Handel’s first masterpiece, and its satirical tone and pervasive sexual innuendo were calculated to please Venetians at carnival-time, rather than to cater for the sober tastes of Hanoverian London. Labyrinthine is too mild a word for the complexity of its plot, which turns on the machinations by Agrippina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, to ensure her son Nero’s accession to the throne. Engineering (as she imagines) her husband’s demise, playing two enemies off against each other while gunning for a third and laying traps for a fourth, the intrigue she weaves makes the brain reel. Meanwhile young Poppea, the love-interest for every male in sight, sets up a manipulative web of her own. Heroic Ottone, who finally gets his girl when everyone else has been neutralised, is the only character who doesn’t get mocked for duplicity and general bad behaviour.
This is broad comedy, but with touches of the sublime. The arias are mostly short but exquisitely turned, and if some of them sound familiar, that’s because Handel was a dedicated recycler, but with music of this quality who could complain? Certainly no one who catches James Conway’s inspired production, in which the sight-gags come thick and fast, and in which an ensemble performance of enormous wit and zest is supported by an ingenious rotating set plus marvellous costumes by designer Samal Blak, and by Julie Osman’s perfectly-judged choreography. Conway’s rhyming translation works a treat, and the period-instrument Old Street Band under Jonathan Peter Kenny are right inside the idiom. In this opera it’s pre-eminently the music which tells the story and delineates character, and every twist of the dramatic kaleidoscope has an assured feel.
We first encounter Gillian Webster’s gutsy Agrippina as she plots on a map her husband’s murder, and when she’s joined by countertenor Jake Arditti’s debauched and pampered Nero we enter a world where morbid sexuality and high fantasy reach their apotheosis. It’s quite in keeping to find in Luke D Williams’s Lesbo a mincingly balletic Mercury-figure with a golden baritone sound, and in countertenor Russell Harcourt’s fawning Narciso a desiccated cleric who sings like a nightingale. There are no weak links in this talented team of performers – everyone moves as adroitly as they sing – but if there’s one character who holds all the others (plus the audience) helplessly in thrall, it’s soprano Paula Sides as an irresistible and captivatingly-sung Poppea.