Agrippina review – DiDonato formidable as power-hungry empress

Royal Opera House, London
Joyce DiDonato gives one of her finest performances in Barrie Kosky’s witty and unnerving staging of Handel’s opera of political manipulation in ancient Rome

‘The ambitious are bound by no laws,” we are told in Agrippina, Handel’s brilliantly ambiguous comedy about political manipulation and chicanery, first performed in Venice in 1709, and widely regarded as the masterpiece of his Italian period, though he never revived it after he settled in London in 1712. Perhaps because he was all too aware that its subject, the ruthlessness of power and the legitimacy of rule, would hit raw nerves at a time when the Hanoverian succession to the Stuart dynasty was a matter of huge controversy and debate.

The setting is ancient Rome. Agrippina was the wife of the emperor Claudius, and mother, by a previous marriage, to Nero. The opera charts her attempts to secure the imperial succession for her son in opposition to the weak-willed Claudio, whose choice has fallen on the morally upright Otho. As so often in Handel, power and desire are inextricably linked, and the narrative is a complex web of multiple deceptions as Agrippina seeks to exploit the private sexual configurations among those around her.

Barrie Kosky’s staging, a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera where it opened earlier this year, marks its first appearance at Covent Garden. It’s clever, sharply observed and witty, if occasionally harder edged in tone than Handel intended. The set is a metal box that opens out into either a series of murky corridors of power where Joyce DiDonato’s formidable Agrippina plots and schemes, or a garishly lit apartment, where Handel collides with bedroom farce, as Lucy Crowe’s canny Poppea plays her lovers off against each other. Franco Fagioli’s Nerone, a tattooed psychopath in a hoodie, meanwhile, canvasses for support among the audience, which is identified as the Roman populace throughout.

Lucy Crowe (Poppea) and Franco Fagioli (Nerone) in Agrippina
Spectacular singing ...Lucy Crowe (Poppea) and Franco Fagioli (Nerone) in Agrippina. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Some of it is too busy, however, and Kosky occasionally flies in the face of the score. Agrippina’s would-be lovers, macho Pallante (Andrea Mastroni) and shy Narciso (Eric Jurenas), though at times marvellously funny, flap and fuss too much. Gianluca Buratto’s Claudio, younger than most and therefore a credible sexual threat to both Fagioli and Iestyn Davies’s Ottone, can be brutal in his attentions to Crowe, whereas Handel gives him expressions of affection that are deeply touching in their sincerity. The ending is unnerving, though Kosky omits a scene in which Juno hastily descends from Olympus to confer blessings on errant humanity below, and replaces it with music from L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato.

The singing is often spectacular. Even by her own exacting standards, DiDonato gives one of her finest performances, wonderfully voiced and acted, and keeping us just the right side of empathy throughout. Pensieri, Voi Mi Tormentate, when the mask drops to reveal lacerating self-doubt, has tragic intensity. Later, celebrating Agrippina’s ascendancy in Ogni Vento, she becomes a rock diva, singing with a microphone and playing to the gallery. Fagioli’s metallic tone and rapid-fire coloratura, meanwhile, contrast sharply with Davies’s lyrical warmth and restraint. Crowe makes a lovely Poppea, but we’re also very aware of the streak of toughness that lurks behind her charm. Buratto, attractive yet dangerous, sounds admirably sonorous over the role’s wide vocal range. In the pit, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are on fine form for Maxim Emelyanychev, who conducts with terrific energy and panache.

• At Royal Opera House, London, until 11 October.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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