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24 Sep 2019

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

Agrippina: Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Agrippina (ensemble)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper


In Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto for Handel’s Agrippina, this inveterate liar, intriguer and practiced murderess has a single aim - the usurpation of her husband Claudius’s throne by her son, Nerone. The Venetian Grimani, a nobleman and cardinal, knew a thing or two about reaching the top, whether via diplomacy or duplicity: his career culminated in his appointment as Viceroy of Naples in 1708. Not long afterwards, in December 1709, his vicious satire depicting ruthless intrigues in ancient Rome motivated by vengeance and sexual gratification was enticing the punters at the Teatro Grimani di S. Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice. Agrippina ran for 27 performances, until February 1710: it was the 25-year-old composer’s first operatic triumph.

Some of Grimani’s cast of licentious liars had featured in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, 70 years earlier, in a more subtly comic dramatic context. Barrie Kosky’s production of Handel’s opera - seen first in Munich earlier this summer - ignores the fact that the Handel-Grimani take on these power-sex conspiracies might be rather more than ‘just comic’, and strives to turn proceedings into a Roman sit-com, with pairs of loathsome criss-crossing lovers and colluding connivers coming a cropper. There is, as always, both irony and pathos in Handel’s score, but Kosky puts his money on frenetic farce.

Agrippina Production image.jpgPhoto credit: Bill Cooper.

Rebecca Ringst’s steel box-frame design offers plentiful stairways, corridors, blinds and inner chambers for eavesdroppers to find hideaways and intriguers to conspire. As the plottings unfold, the box swivels and dismantles, its moving parts emblematic of the human chess game being played by Agrippina. It’s no surprise that at the height of the hugger-muggering - when, at the opening of act 3, a trio of Romans visit Poppea’s apartments, lured by her panto-esque ploy of hide-and-hear - Joachim Klein’s eye-burning lighting of the white-on-white interior renders the audience as blind as the protagonists. Nor, that the Meccano-parts are reassembled when Agrippina checkmates one and all.

Grimani’s libretto is one of the most psychologically and dramatically convincing that Handel set, and even though Agrippina has a high proportion of self-borrowed material (some scholars have suggested that as many as 50 of the 55 separate numbers have known precursors), Handel’s score is compelling, inspired by youthful creativity, confidence and vigour. The recitatives are lengthy but persuasive, often bringing voices together in ways which drive the drama onwards. In the ROH pit, conductor Maxim Emelyanychev pushed the pace and challenged the singers to keep up: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were impelled by the innate harmonic energy and a driving and robust bass line. The continuo timbres were varied and alert, and the oboe players deserved a bonus.

Iestyn Davies as Ottone Bill Cooper.jpg Iestyn Davies as Ottone. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

So why, given too that there was some splendid singing to enjoy, did I feel slightly dissatisfied? I think it’s because Kosky seems not to appreciate Handelian irony. Grimani provides copious intrigue and irony. Handel enhances this by composing music which is often at odds with the apparent sentiments of the text. So, when in Act 1 the words of Agrippina’s ‘Non ho cor che per amarti’ seem to assure Poppea that Agrippina is her BFF, the minor key and sinuous melodic lines tell us otherwise. There is no need for theatrical signposting. Time and again I found myself reflecting on a Shakespearian parallel: that if Iago does not indeed seem ‘honest’ to the other characters, then the dramatic credibility is destroyed - whatever audience collusion is generated by Iago’s play-dominating soliloquies. In Kosky’s production there is far too much minxing, mincing and melodramatising. He doesn’t trust Handel to do the work for him.

Fortunately, Kosky has a fine cast to present his petulant playground antics. Ever a theatrical animal, Joyce DiDonato relishes the extroversion and exaggeration of Kosky’s conception of Agrippina, which seems to owe much to American 1980s TV dramas Dynasty and Dallas. DiDonato pushes her voice hard in Act 1, but doesn’t really delve into the emotional depths of Act 2’s ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’. With the follow-spot shining, she wields a diamante-studded microphone with aplomb - when Agrippina morphs into a Judy Garland clone (why?) - but it’s not until the closing moments, when she claims that it was love for Claudio that led her to secure the throne for Nerone, that the musical simplicity and sincerity of ‘Se vuoi pace’ allows DiDonato - without Kosky’s interference - to fulfil Handel’s deliciously ironic directness.

As Poppea, Lucy Crowe flounces and flirts hyperactively. If she’s not ‘doing a Marilyn Monroe’ on the steel staircase, then she’s fluttering her skirts and flashing her knickers - this Poppea’s self-love outweighs her suitors’ adoration! Not that Crowe doesn’t produce the vocal goods to justify such adulation: Emelyanychev pushed her rather too fast in ‘Se giunge un dispetto’ and after some dizzying coloratura the climatic phrase-peaks rather lost touch with their harmonic roots, but Crowe demonstrated fine breath control and rhythmic clarity.

Gianluca Buratto as Claudio Lucy Crowe as Poppea.jpg Gianluca Buratto as Claudio, Lucy Crowe as Poppea. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The first-night audience went wild for Franco Fagioli’s tattoo-headed, eyebrow-studded, hoodie-slouching Nerone. I was less enamoured. Handel wrote the roles of Nerone and the courtier Narciso for castrates; Fagioli sings with a nerve-twitchingly wide vibrato and his tone is piercing rather than ingratiating; he gets around the coloratura but in a rather mechanical, rather than meaningful, way. I don’t think that this role needs to be sung by a woman: one can imagine a rich feminine voice, such as that of Philippe Jaroussky, serving the role well, and offering rather more complex characterisation than Fagioli’s pouting, wall-pounding, floor-stamping adolescent. Nerone’s final aria, ‘Come nube che fugge dal vento’, in which he claims that he has broken the enchantment of his infatuation for Poppea, did however suggest that Fagioli might have had more to say than Kosky allowed.

Franco Fagioli as Nerone.jpg Franco Fagioli as Nerone. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Gianluca Burrato was dramatically convincing as Claudio, prepared to look a fool with his trousers round his ankles, but his lower register was not entirely secure or firm. As Agrippina’s would-be suitors Pallante and Narciso, Andrea Mastroni and Eric Jurenas’s comic antics didn’t make much of a mark, though there was little to fault with their singing; the same could be said for José Coca Loza’s Lesbo, Claudio’s ‘Leporello’.

Iestyn Davies as Ottone was alone in his appreciation of the sincere characterisation embodied in Handel’s music and text-setting. When he appeared before the Imperial palace, expectant of glory in acknowledgement of his heroic deeds, this Ottone seemed genuinely unaware that he is about to be denounced as a traitor. Having been assaulted violently with a lead pipe, he delivered the dissonant recitative and expressively eloquent ‘Voi, che udite’ with a musical precision and psychological perspicacity which was unique during this evening’s performance.

It was only at the very close of the opera that Kosky approached anything like this sort of veracity. The director eschews Juno’s divine intervention and offers instead a slow oboe-led movement from L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Agrippina retreats to the steel-box and takes a seat, alone … victorious? Nero is Emperor: she’s won, hasn’t she? Tantalisingly, in these final moments Kosky shows that he understands the inherent tragedy that Handel ironically unfolds … the moment is a bit too late to really make its mark, but it’s welcome. As today’s politicians are realising, as events unfold, the winner doesn’t necessarily take all.

Claire Seymour

Agrippina - Joyce DiDonato, Nerone - Franco Fagioli, Poppea - Lucy Crowe, Ottone - Iestyn Davies, Claudio - Gianluca Buratto, Pallante - Andrea Mastroni, Narciso - Eric Jurenas, Lesbo - José Coca Loza; Director - Barrie Kosky, Conductor - Maxim Emelyanychev, Set designer - Rebecca Ringst, Costume designer - Klaus Bruns, Lighting designer - Joachim Klein, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 23rd September 2019.

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