Handel’s early Agrippina in brilliant Days Bay production

Agrippina by Handel
Opera in a Days Bay Garden

Producer: Rhona Fraser Musical director: Howard Moody; stage director: Sara Brodie
Joel Amosa, Rhona Fraser, Rowena Simpson, Stephen Diaz, Rebecca Ryan, Daniel O’Connor, Julian Chote, Dan Sun, Barbara Patterson

Sixteen-piece orchestra led by Howard Moody

Canna House, Days Bay

Sunday 14 February, 6pm

Wellington’s boutique opera company that presents most of its productions in the beech forest-surrounded garden of the company’s producer, Rhona Fraser, staged its ninth opera at the height of an unusually warm summer. We regretted not making time before the performance to join the thousands on the beach, for a swim, with the temperature hovering around 27 degrees.

This was the company’s second Handel opera, after Alcina in 2012. Other unfamiliar pieces have been Mozart’s L’Oca del Cairo, Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and La Calisto by Cavalli.

(For the record, the company’s other productions have been of The Marriage of Figaro, Maria Stuarda, Così fan tutte and Der Rosenkavalier).

It’s one of Handel’s early works, written in Italy while he was absorbing the traditions of Italian opera, dominated by Alessandro Scarlatti, and Cesti and Stradella and others. Agrippina was written for Venice when he was 24. Nevertheless, it is regarded as one of his most successful pieces both on account of the vitality of the music and an unusually well-contrived libretto. So it’s not one of those operas where by the middle of the second act, you get impatient that no one asks the obvious question that would put an end to the troubles and truncate the opera.

The performance, the second, on 14 February, on the terrace before the house succeeded well with no sets and few props. Instead, the cast is expected to perform athletically, extravagantly, with the focus on themselves, their voices and acting. The performance was in front of the orchestra which was in the recessed entrance way on the right for the first act, but from Act II moved to the left side, straddling the wide sliding doorway of the large living room, half in, half out. The orchestra was the usual ensemble, 16-strong, drawn mainly from splendid NZSO players, with outstanding oboists, and led from harpsichord by Howard Moody.

At the start, facing west and singing into the blazing sun, with nowhere to hide, nerves and intonation weaknesses showed. But in all cases, each quickly came to life, gaining confidence and relishing the risqué nonsense.

Rhona Fraser herself sang Agrippina (Emperor Claudius’s wife), sometimes struggling to portray her duplicitous character, but singing and acting with conviction, with very overt asides in the form of smiles and grimaces and other signs of cynical self-interest. Next to her role as the Marschallin in the Strauss opera, this might well be her biggest role in her Days Bay enterprise.

The opera opens with the news that Emperor Claudius has died at sea leading his wife Agrippina to launch her campaign to persuade the Senate to accept her son Nero as successor. However, Claudius’s general, Ottone, appears with the news that he rescued Claudius and the rest of the opera is essentially a complex series of plots (and their frustration) aimed at achieving Agrippina’s ruthless ambitions.

In spite of his first appearance as Emperor in most un-imperial costume, Joel Amosa, soon took command of his role as Claudius in more appropriate purple toga, displaying not only grandeur and authority but an intelligent sense of humour. Though Ottone, counter tenor Stephen Diaz, who has performed in previous productions at Days Bay, first also appears in singularly unmilitary dress, he emerges as a general of unusual charisma, with commanding presence and voice.

Claudius resumes his flagrant pursuit of Poppea under the nose of his wife who continues to attempt to get rid of both Claudius and Ottone.

Accomplished Handelian Rebecca Ryan, overcame her unflattering costume, to portray Poppea boldly and vocally buoyant if not quite managing the flagrant, seductive bit.

As in Monteverdi’s masterpiece, La coronazione di Poppea, Nerone is a trouser role and Rowena Simpson, in tight-fitting black costume, creates a lively, youthful character, not the legendary monster who later succeeded Claudius and might have murdered his mother Agrippina (some accounts have her murdering Claudius, so Nero’s effort might not seem so bad). And you’ll recall that in the Monteverdi opera, Poppea sets her sights on Emperor Nero who banishes his wife Ottavia so that he can ‘marry’ Poppea.

The two brilliant counter tenors Stephen Diaz and Julian Chote, in their respective roles as Ottone and Narciso, were both accomplished and larger-than-life. Narciso and Pallante (Daniel O’Connor), are defined as ‘freedmen’ (libertus) – that is, former slaves who have been freed and accorded full citizenship, here probably on account of their talents and education. Peripheral figures perhaps, they gained attention through their entertaining flamboyance and impressive singing. They become useful in the last act as Agrippina’s tools in her persistent scheming to get Nero confirmed as Claudius’s successor, in the event of Claudius meeting with an accident.

There are other minor characters: Lesbo, the Emperor’s servant, was sung vividly by Dun Sun and at the end the goddess Juno appears to bless the eventual happy ending that statesmanlike intercession by Claudius had brought about. Barbara Patterson acts and sings the goddess with glittering splendor.

The success of the staging was again the work of Sara Brodie, master of imaginative histrionics, explicit dissembling, clever exploitation of the physical shape of the terrace and house. Much credit goes to the witty and at times very colloquial translation by Amanda Holden, which was first used by director David McVicar for the English National Opera production that was seen in Brussels and Frankfurt before reaching London in 2007. Most of the singers succeeded well in projecting the words with clarity.

Sure, it’s a complicated story, not easily grasped merely by reading a synopsis. Rather, it made sense through the vivid performance itself, especially in a production that illuminated character and motivation as well as this entertaining hill-side staging did.

Modern revivals of Agrippina began in the middle of World War II, at Halle, Handel’s birthplace; reportedly a travesty, from today’s point of view. Next came a live radio broadcast by Italian Radio in 1953. There were several more stagings in Germany before the first in England, at Abingdon in 1963. There was a concert performance in Philadelphia in 1972 and the first staged production in Fort Worth in 1985. It returned to Venice in 1983. All of these apparently neglected a concern for historical practice, and the first to seek historical performance accuracy were at Schwetzingen in 1981 and Göttingen in 1991.

In the 21st century, productions have become fairly common, as interest in early opera, especially Handel, has become very widespread.

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