It’s a paradox, perhaps, but the early-20th-century cloister folly perched at the top of Iford’s beautiful ‘hanging’ garden is a perfect venue for small-scale Baroque opera. Last year Christian Curnyn closed a long association with Iford with a vivid account of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses (sensibly sung in English). This year’s Baroque piece, conducted by Christopher Bucknall, was another Venetian opera, but this time by Handel: his brilliant political satire Agrippina, to the most scabrous and momentous libretto he ever set. I’ts an opera that works best in close-up Bruno Ravella, fresh from his triumph with a very different opera, Strauss’s Intermezzo, at Garsington, devised a fast-moving contemporary staging which made the most of Christopher’ Cowell’s modern-vernacular English version of the test. Kimm Kovac designed the glamorous here-and-now costumes, including an ever-changing Devil Wears Prada wardrobe for the scheming titular anti-heroine, and adorned the performing space with Ancient Roman busts.
Alinka Kozari’s Alexis-Carrington-meets-Cruella-De-Vil Agrippina would surely have chewed the scenery if there had been any, but she sang the role marvelously, in crystal clear if occasionally accented English – she is Hungarian – spitting her words with venom. She is a stylish Handelian, despite a voice that sounds as if it could be bearded for Mozart’s Vitellia, later perhaps Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. Her lilting ‘Ogni vent’ – almost a waltz-time number-was the highlight of her musically subtle performance. The supporting cast of victims included Andrew Slater’s Claudius, an unhistorically charismatic figure, with a nice sense of irony and all the notes, even if his is not a classic Handelian coloratura bass. Louise Kemeny’s baby-doll Poppea, Rupert Enticknap’s raptly sung Otto (‘Vaghe fonti’ was sublime), Tom Verney’s handsome if slippery Narcissus, and Gareth Brynmor John’s vocally imposing Pallas were all outstanding, and Bradley Travis made as much as he could of the tiny part of Agrippina’s servant Lesbus. Iford has found in Christopher Bucknall a music director worthy to step into Curnyn’s shoes. He directed his 11 players-on period instruments, of course-with an unfailing sense of this wonderful opera’s dramatic momentum. Iford has made a specialty of Handel and if it can put on performances of this quality, it should clearly do more. The lovely terraced gardens are the cherry on top of the icing on the cake.