Friday, April 8, 2016

A refreshingly edgy lift to an old work comes wonderfully sung at Brisbane Baroque's Agrippina

It's not difficult to believe that Agrippina is considered to be Georg Frideric Handel's first operatic masterpiece but, surprisingly, it's the first time this deliciously rambunctious work has been fully staged in Australia. Premiering in Venice in 1709, Agrippina is also a lusciously multi-faceted work that binds piquant melodrama with dark intrigues, satirical comedy and tonnes of sexual energy. And putting aside distant historical inaccuracies, this mini-series-like three-act 'opera seria' marvellously points the index finger at the corruptive abuse of power and its offspring of debauchery.

Cast of soloists in Brisbane Baroque's Agrippina
Brisbane Baroque present the work as the centrepiece of its second festival year, once again, in association with Göttingen International Opera Festival. Riding on the runaway success of last year's Helpmann Award-winning Faramondo, this year's offering is an outstanding contribution to modern operatic ideals on a scale that befits its drama and suited nicely to the 600-plus capacity of the Conservatorium Theatre.

And what a wonderfully sung treatment and refreshingly edgy lift an old work gets from director Laurence Dale, who milks Vincenzo Grimani's libretto for every conceivable vulgarity and shamelessly presents it without tarnishing the narrative. Dale's effervescent direction is honoured by an impressive international cast of soloists who paint their characters with fabulously nuanced tricks, many of whom are reprising their roles from the 2014 Göttingen production premiere.

Ulrike Schneider as Agrippina
Ulrike Schneider drip-feeds gracious charms and poisonous heart as the scheming megalomanic dominatrix, Agrippina. Full of darkened mezzo-soprano richness, Schneider gives poise and grandeur to the role as the manipulative matriarch while luring her audience (via bracketed surtitled text) into her crazed rationalising delusions. Only a little more power to the voice and shaping of the upper register, which she attained firmly in the third act, might've pushed her performance to even greater dramatic height, but the swift mental shifts of character resonated loud and clear.

Russell Harcourt is a standout as the entertainingly lewd and degenerate Nerone, who he renders as a pitiable, psychologically scarred and clueless creature, beaten into servility by his mother to desire the throne and feasting on the pleasures of sex. Harcourt sounded completely at ease at every vocal corner as he projected a succulently sonorous and throbbing countertenor (one of three on magnificent show) to match the libidinous, later dildo-flapping desperado.

Hobbling, haggard and pasty, bass João Fernandes brings considered wisdom to a helplessly lecherous Claudio. Doing so with his irresistibly hypnotic and sullen-toned bass instrument coming garnished with the finest vibrato, Fernandes leaves no doubt that his Claudio has emerged anew from near death in a tempest at sea.

Rewarded with the power to rule but single-minded in his love for Poppea, the opera's only shining light of moral strength is Claudio's saviour from death, Ottone, to whom Carlo Vistoli imbues with fortified simple-heartedness and a vocally charismatic and wholesome countertenor. Vistoli's Ottone shares his feelings freely and tenderly with Keri Fuge's savvy and seductive Poppea, her bright soprano glistening more and more as the plot progressed. Together, Vistoli and Fuge keep love burning in sight of the debauchery, climaxing in Act III's "Pur ch'io ti stringa al sen" (Ottone) followed by Bel piacere e godere fido amor" (Poppea), to which the pair brought great spellbinding pathos.

Ulrike Schneider and Russell Harcourt
Countertenor Owen Willetts and baritone Ross Ramgobin are always entertaining and vocally robust as the comic chalk-and-cheese duo, Naciso and Pallante, Rambogin generously and amusingly sharing in hand his significant trousered assets. Baritone Ronaldo Steiner adequately fills out the smaller role of Claudio's servant Lesbo.

Tom Schenk's smart, sharp and shimmering set designs, Robby Duiveman's quirky back-to-baroque futuristic costumes and Richard Stuart's dramatically directed lighting add immense theatrical might. Two manoeuvrable boxed screens of scrim and mirror, and a single golden Doric column, create a variety of spatial forms and passages. A single roman chair is its centrepiece as the seat of power on which Dale cleverly stains with episodes of immoral and odious behaviour.

And below all this onstage salaciousness, a rich assortment of music beats, hums and blooms with eloquence and majesty. On period instruments, the Orchestra of the Antipodes were in superlative and vivacious form. Conducting with signature exuberance, Erin Helyard  shapes the music like you're watching and hearing it being created fresh on the spot for the first time as he builds orchestral excitement and harvests the unique sounds of the individual instruments. All the while, a near-at-hand, commanding sensitivity pervaded throughout as Helyard crafted to perfection the orchestral and vocal interplay.

In another feather in the cap for Brisbane Baroque, Agrippina has landed in Australia with sparkling promise that the future is indeed bright for the staging of under-performed or rare works which, newly realised, can beguile the mind and senses.

Conservatorium Theatre
Griffith University
Until 16th April.

Production photographs: Darren Thomas

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