Agrippina stirs some sh…tuff up (Barbican, 31 May 2019)

As a very big fan of Poppea, the prequel causes lots of amusement.

Poppea: Ottone, my boo-boo teddybear!
Ottone: I do not wish for power, all I want it my lovely, sexy and very virtuous Poppea!
Nerone: Poppea, Poppea! Considering I am higher up the totem pole than him, can I have some?
Poppea: Go away, pimply teenager! Now, where is my boo-boo teddybear, whom I will love forever?

Famous. last. words.

Claudio: Nerone, leave alone (ie, to me) virginal patrician women!
Agrippina: Nerone, stick to the plan! Now is not the time to get horny!

And so on.

Joyce DiDonato Agrippina
Elsa Benoit Poppea
Xavier Sabata Ottone
Franco Fagioli Nerone
Luca Pisaroni Claudio
Andrea Mastroni Pallante
Carlo Vistoli Narciso
Biagio Pizzuti Lesbo
Maxim Emelyanychev harpsichord/director | Il Pomo d’Oro

There is an unwritten law that says operas about this imperial family must have really good libretti. This one is funny as hell, there are too many good things to mention. If the music was not as good you would almost want it to be a very silly play about lust for power. For those who do not know, everybody has their own game they pursue to various results.

At this point, Poppea is actually a paragon of virtue compared to her later self. She does not want Nerone at all, no matter how much closer to the throne he is, and she is actually repulsed by Claudio, the emperor:

Poppea: He is like… old.

Although I think Pisaroni is younger than Sabata? Heh, heh. And, well, for once the bass-baritone is less credible age-wise than the soprano.

Poppea sticks with her true love here and fends off the danger (Claudio and Nerone) but also shows us that she can perform her own machinations. Now said schemes are not particularly clever, as she manages to 1) confuse boo-boo teddybear Ottone and 2) her well thought out scheme works in such a way as to lose him his throne. Ooops. Was Arnalta on holiday?

As far as the singers I had two surprises – for once I liked Fagioli’s acting better than his singing and I actually heard Sabata live! Those of you who have read my Disarmonia estravaganza may remember that I have seen him live before. Less with the hearing. It tells you something if you can hear a singer better from the Barbican’s balcony than from Wigg’s 5th row. And that something is

the orchestra and the conductor

I want to put my vote for Emelyanychev as the most singer friendly conductor EVER. OK, ever as in modern times and in Baroque specifically. But, maaaan, can he support a singer or what! Also, his orchestra is butter. When I saw them for Serse last year I was too close to Gal… I mean, to the action, so I actually did not have the best spot for focusing on hearing the work of the instrumentalists. But from my perch in the front row balcony (upgrade! that was a sweet spot for my £15) I could hear it in its multichannel beauty.

Now butter (salted, full fat) is usually a top like from me, but I have to say that, here and there, I could have liked a hint of recklessness (couple of pebbles in that butter?). I know, I know, as that wise man Muddy Waters once said, I can never be satisfied. But I think with me, it is actually high praise if I say it was wonderful butIt means you are on a whole other level from the riff-raff who cannot do a pianissimo to save their life. As I was saying much later, when the conversation turned to whether one has or has not seen that 8 hour tunnel that is the Wagner light – I like my music performed with delicacy and attention to detail.

Now lets go back to Franco. Hey, this man was made for solo shows, dramatically leaving and returning to the stage comedy! First Serse, now this. I think he was even better here, with his Mummy, Mummy, I’m scared schtick. Singingwise, I have already mentioned last year that Im going off him. Even so, it was a bit strange that, of everything that went on last night, Come nube came off the least convincing. Mind you, that was just me – the public loved it. Now, of course they would love it, the music is just so good. I also applauded, because how can you not give this orchestra and its head honcho a bit of clap? Heh heh. PS: first violin, sweet tone all night.

Handel: Hello, all! You may remember me for that wonderfully sparkling work I presented a couple of years ago, Il trionfo del Tempo… No? OK, the subject was a bit finger wagging – but the music! I came up with some of my best ideas back in 1707. I think I shall cannibalise that work for the rest of my life (wistful sigh). Let me remind you.

And reminded we was. In my case, I was reminded of the breathtaking renditions Bonitatibus and Hallenberg, to name but two, do of this aria. I am not entirely sure who or what to fault, but considering maestro was so keen on supporting his singers I shall blame both him and Franco. Emelyanychev chose to support him, so perhaps the lack of clarity or focus came from that. Do not get me wrong, the string section’s sound was as good as ever and the winds were no slouch. The tempo was no problem. What I did not quite feel was the drive. Franco, for his part, made a completely abstract sparkle of coloratura out of it. Like words tossed by the wind, as it were. I know I am asking too much from him, but I love this aria to such a degree that I would like to actually catch a word here and there.

Sabata, on the other hand, when heard, sounds lovely. Stylish as anything plus his recit skills are quite legendary. And whilst we are at other badass 1707 arias I wanted the world to remember, at some point Ottone breaks into Crede l’uom, only about birds and bees or something equally as incongruous. Wait a minute, that’s a cautioning the soprano aria. And whoever sings it, actually gets the soprano (right? Disinganno gets Bellezza in the end? so to speak; it is a morality tale, after all), which is the case here. Short lived victory, Ottone, alas. But Ottone is the character that stays the same through both works.

Agrippina: Whew! Now that I’ve seen my son on throne, I can die happy.
Nerone: Happy to oblige! (ok, not just yet)

This Agrippina provided a unique moment when I actually liked all three countertenors on stage. Even though I am moving on from Franco and the contrast with the warmer tones of Sabata and Vistoli was not flattering as far as I’m concerned, this was still the best possible gaggle of CTs on one stage for me. And though I appreciated Orlinski before, I think we were indeed better off with Vistoli as Narciso, to contrast the bolder Pallante (really fun acting chops from Mastroni) towards Agrippina. He has that hopeless lover tone that would probably do a nice Ottone in the future.

Because I never want my writeups to sound like they are coming from a hopeless Betty (Mary?) Sue, I shall remind you that I have always been indifferent to JDD’s tone. But then comes the rest of the story. JDD is without a doubt one of the smartest singers out there. I have long admired the way she balances her belcanto and her Baroque. She understands style and she can be interesting within the required parameters, without having to borrow skills from another time period. And, as you may know, I have been obsessed with her Barcelona Ogni vento from earlier this month. You sing Baroque, you need to do that kind of precise and inventive coloratura, you have to be able to sing softly, change dynamic gears in an instant, you need to pay attention to details. With her, it is all there and it feels easy to boot.

Her Agrippina did not try to out-Poppea Poppea. She took the role of scheming older woman very seriously and that was a clever move, because it fits her much better. Dramatically, her chiding mother to Franco’s whingy son and the lying through their teeth oh so civil couple she and Pisaroni made were the best moments of the night.

What can I say about Pisaroni? It is always a pleasure to hear him spin Baroque coloratura and, yes, we got his trade mark mezzo-hair sniffing moment. Haha.

I really did not mind Benoit and thought her acting was fine, although the company rather came down on her and thought she was boring. Not the most memorable voice out there but see above.

The evening ended up a lot more animated than I thought it would be. First, Giulia found me in the Barbican shop wihtout us actually making any plans. Then a bunch of Twitter folk she knew joined in for lively conversation. At the intermission I was stuck in an unbelievable loo queue. Barbican… you have so much dead space and so little understanding of how women and loo breaks function. As I was saying to a queue companion, it should not be called intermission any longer, rather it should be women’s loo break.

On the other hand, this may be Barbican’s clever have Londoners mingle plan. I found out that the two most efficient ice breakers in London are 1) complaining about the weather, 2) complaining about the loo queue at a performance venue. The third is admiring pets on the public transport.

You know the joke is Londoners never speak to each other or make eye contact on the tube (not true, I hasten to add). I have met some very interesting people on this very queue and I was a bit sad we could not continue our conversation due to impending return of performers on stage (the gall!). But after the show I joined Giulia and her friends for a pint at the local and that was very fun. We shall do it again!

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on June 1, 2019, in acting in opera, barbican, baroque, basses, countertenors, italian opera, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, sopranos and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I’m going to see this tonight! However, this performance in Turku has Samantha Hankey instead of JDD, she is quite young for Agrippina (26?), but we’ll see… Nice to know you liked all the CTs, I have been a little suspicious… Anyway, I am really happy to “meet” all these horrible characters again!

    • the Poppea characters are the best kind of horrible 😉 on paper/in the theatre, of course. I hope your Agrippina is good for her age. The band and Emelyanychev are still the same, though?

      • Same band, Emelyanychev and mostly same singers. Samantha Hankey was wonderful, so regal and imperious (and looked like a goddess). And now I am a little embarrassed of that comment about her age… 🙂

  2. Aggripina is one of my fav Händel’s! and along w Alcina i think it’s a great one to take newbies out. so much room for female scheming! (i also saw one w 3 CTs… broke my limit that year.)

  3. Sounds like a total fun evening, thanks for the write-up! It’s true, one cannot help but like Emelyanychev and I wonder if he throws in more spark of his own with less star power in the singers? Interesting who takes the lead in such combinations.

    • he’s obviously enjoying himself but it looks to me like a very well oiled machine, so whatever it takes to get a good show on, he’s up for it.

  4. thank you for the review. “Was Arnalta not available?”. Ahahahaa.
    and ilpdo: heart eyes. Of the smooth kind.
    I cannot believe they had the audacity to NOT do a Vienna stop. Sigh.

  1. Pingback: Agrippina – Barbican – Opera. My 2 cents.

  2. Pingback: Agrippina – Barbican – Opera secondo me

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