It’s rare that we have a Royal Opera House premiere from a major composer. So this new, international production of Handel’s early opera Agrippina, is an important event.
And though the convoluted plot of Roman back-stabbing requires concentration, it certainly is an opportunity for some world-class singing. There are some truly beautiful moments in this long lost Handel masterpiece.
Agrippina was a real woman, and she was a woman of power. This opera is therefore a surprisingly modern tale of a woman on top. Or maybe I should say “women” as her younger rival Poppea is just as conniving.
Agrippina survived various plots and purges, before marrying the Emperor Claudius, and ruling with him. She eventually bumped him off with a poisoned mushroom (sadly not in this piece) to put her son Nero on the throne. Not a great gift to the Roman Empire.
This complex, nightmarish, plotting of the Roman court is well caught by Handel, though set designer Rebecca Ringst has clearly decided to portray this as a tale of everyday office politics turning bloody.
Her set is an enormous metallic box – a mass of electric Venetian blinds. Computerized, revolving boxes are clearly in this season at Covent Garden, though Ms Ringst’s is even less successful than Es Devlin’s for Don Giovanni.
Unfortunately, stage hands are forced to creep around during the singing to make things work. Those electric blinds are also rather noisy (audible even at the back of the House), and the box’s wheels squeak annoyingly as it revolves.
The star Joyce Di Donato punched the set several times and I felt like joining her. But as one would expect of this great American mezzo-soprano, she overcame its challenges and brought the house down with her singing.
Particularly noteworthy was her performance lying awake in bed plotting the downfall of her rivals and scheming to put her son Nero on the throne. Her acting matched the quality of her singing. When the set didn’t get in the way.
This was also true of the fabulous Franco Fagiolo as her son, Nero. His unsuitability for the throne stands out with every simper of Franco’s lips, and with the clever use of a gang tattoo on his head.
There is also a surprising moment when the house lights go up and he appears in the stalls to portray his cynical working of the crowd – distributing alms to the poor. Though at the hiked prices for this production, nobody in the stalls could really be described as “poor”.
Strong performances also from the two unlikely lovers Ottone and Poppea. Counter tenor Iestyn Davies is familiar to music fans from his performance as David challenging Goliath in Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne.
His voice is blissfully sweet, and some of the finest moments in this production belong to him, and his wistful introspection. By contrast Lucy Crowe brings a galloping enthusiasm to the role of Poppea, and never hesitates to demonstrate the power of her voice.
There are strong performances from the other singers, particularly the wonderful basses Gianluca Buratto as the Emperor Claudius (Claudio), and Andrea Mastroni as the courtier Pallante. Such strong Italian diction.
It’s just a shame that in this co-production with Munich opera house, Director Barrie Kosky, famous in Germany, chooses a slapstick approach to the comedy.
This is a great vehicle for Joyce Di Donato, and the choice of one of her favourite conductors, Russian, Maxim Emelyanychev, creates a partnership that works well.
This is a must for Handel lovers, albeit an expensive one. At least in the cheaper seats the noisy set is less annoying.
Agrippina by Handel plays at the Royal Opera House until October 11.
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