Agrippina: Scheming, betrayal and cleavage make for a great evening | Opera review

Handel’s first great opera is a comic piece about a serious subject


Lime Tree, Limerick


Agrippina is widely regarded as Handel's first great opera. He wrote it to a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, and it was premiered on December 26th, 1709, at the Teatro S Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice, where its 27 performances brought the 24-year-old composer huge success.

The work deals with power struggles in ancient Rome, specifically Agrippina’s scheming to ensure her son Nerone succeeds Claudius as emperor. Grimani was a career diplomat and he seems to have brought his professional experience to bear on a story in which the characters are real even though the actual events are not.

The plot is complex in detail but clear in outline in Oliver Mears’s new Irish Youth Opera production. This is a co-production with Northern Ireland Opera in association with the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Lime Tree Theatre, and it takes the work’s biggest challenge for modern audiences head-on.

It's a comic piece about a serious subject, and Mears plays it as a contemporary soap opera. Claudio is a magnate with a private jet and his picture on the cover of Time magazine. The main set is a minimalist boardroom that functions as the focus of the kind of deceptions, betrayals and shifting allegiances that keep people glued to their television sets.

There’s cleavage, too, sexual posturing (rather too much of it by the evening’s end), a sauna with an ice bucket of champagne on the side, and a suggestive bedroom scene with handcuffs, a whip, a paddle and wax play.

The exaggerations of the world of soap opera marry often preposterous, self-obsessed goings-on with a see-sawing of vividly expressed emotion, which Handel’s music provides in bucketfuls.

The IYO cast – Máire Flavin, Anna Devin, Rachel Kelly, Dawn Burns, Padraic Rowan, Sharon Carty, Brendan Collins and Alan Ewing – performs with an unrestrained energy that is more than matched by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, directed with fire from the harpsichord by Jonathan Cohen.

Three of the five women play male roles, and designer Annemarie Woods’s costumes resolve the gender-bending challenge with real aplomb. Carty stands out as Ottone, the work’s most sombre character, with the fervent firmness of her singing. There’s nothing that Flavin and Devin won’t do as the manipulative Agrippina and Poppea, and Ewing’s Claudio flip-flops engagingly like a man who has more power than he really knows what to do with. It’s an evening to remember.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor