Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.



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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):