Guess who’s back? (Early) Handel opera on the main stage of the ROH! What was it, only about 10 years since last we had one of longtime London resident’s operas grace the acoustics of the main hall?
Nevermind, ROH has not only poshed up to high heavens – if it ever needed such a thing1 – but has hit a big win with those who have long known that staging Handel doesn’t have to be tedious. One didn’t have to look farther than ENO, who’s been running brilliant Handel productions for years. All you need to know is that this Kosky riotous fun is giving that “mamazing” Richard Jones Rodelinda I always rave about a run for its money. Clearly these two are the best Baroque opera directors of the moment.
Agrippina: Joyce DiDonato
Nerone: Franco Fagioli
Poppea: Lucy Crowe
Ottone: Iestyn Davies
Claudio: Gianluca Buratto
Pallante: Andrea Mastroni
Narciso: Eric Jurenas (covered last night?)
Lesbo: José Coca Loza
Conductor: Maxim Emelyanychev | Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Director: Barrie Kosky
Drop what you’re doing and go see it. If/when your local cinema shows it, get your ticket now. For those who like their mezzo power amped up, the Met is going to stage it (
run this production? See comments, it’s McVicar’s production from La Monnaie that is going to the Met. You should still see the Met broadcast, it’s a good team there as well) with the always suitable Kate Lindsey as Nerone2 and they’ll broadcast it. If there’s one Met broadcast you need to see, this is going to be it.
Kosky has already hit fabulous Handel heights with his Glyndebourne Saul, so this didn’t necessary come as a surprise. It was more what’s he going to do this time? Well, this is a very restrained production, both for him and for ROH. The focus is sharply on characterisation and character interaction, with a (current ROH favourite) rotating cube with various rooms as backdrop. Every character has their well defined personality and they interact like they’re supposed to, whilst at the same time use park and bark for our benefit (so that we can hear what they’re singing – big house, light voices = park and trill).
If you’ve seen Kosky comedies you know his humour ain’t subtle. Then again, neither were these particular Romans. But he’s good at what he does and even though it maybe cheap, it’s never stupid. The costumes range from really beautiful (for the women) to understandably blingy-ridiculous (Nerone) and midlife crisis-ridiculous (Claudio).
The singing is ROH level tops, with JDD and Crowe as big standouts and Davies in close pursuit. Fagioli’s diction is as garbled as ever (even from closer) but I think we’ve all agreed that this is what it is. Handel’s Nerone is definitely his role, though, and if you’re going to see him in a staged opera, I heartily suggest it’s this one. He can negotiate Come nube (aka, Come nembo from Il trionfo…) at proper pace and if you don’t mind super pressurised emission, you’re going to be happy with his rendition. Emelyanychev, of course, cradles him in a cocoon of sotto playing from Baroque-subtlety veterans Opera of the Age of Enlightenment.
JDD has always appealed to me in Baroque roles and Agrippina is no exception. She has the stage presence to carry the title role and her Pensieri and Ogni vento (with the fun improvs) were as good as anything. At this point in her career she’s mastered many styles and when you hear her in Baroque you don’t think Rossini, which is a very fine feat. So after a very stark Pensieri sung on a bare (and soul baring) stage, we had Ogni vento staged as the big moment of a consummate pop star (complete with sparkly microphone, poses, direct interaction with the public). It’s pretty trendy these days to give nods and/or poke fun at pop star moments but in the productions that I have seen it used it has worked. It fits here too, especially considering breaking the fourth wall is one of the pillars of this very self aware libretto. And it also makes sense Ogni vento (aka, whatever it takes) gets this treatment, because it’s Agrippina’s biggest moment of honesty for someone who’s genuinely dishonest.
After the Madrid Rodelinda, we know to expect good things from Lucy Crowe in Handel roles. And I’m pretty sure she loves this rep, because her enthusiasm at embracing Poppea’s many moods and scheming (complete with fabulous phrasing) was infectious.
And, yes, T, S’agita in mezzo all’onde is called Vaghe perle here 😉 and is sung by the soprano. Let’s not forget Papa Handel was very young (24) and when he got this Venetian3 commission only a year after Aci, Galatea and Polifemo, so no wonder he immediately rushed to his stash of “greatest early hits” and plundered like there was no tomorrow (there probably wasn’t).
Incidentally, for those who may not know but read this blog, Aci & friends played at Wigmore Hall in very fine company the night of the ROH Agrippina premiere. Yours truly made the wise decision to attend that first (in very fine company, on, off stage and backstage). I also think that bit I really like from La resurezzione is also mixed in here. Though I may be wrong about this one… but it was written the previous year.
If you go to see one of the Nerone-related operas in the big UK houses, your chance at getting a Iestyn Davies Ottone are 99% or higher 😉 That being said, if we’re denied a contralto (as originally written for), he’s a very good alternative and was in top voice. Ottone, as ever, is parked in Lament City but he’s assigned that beautiful Crede l’uomo aria from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno.
So, like I was saying, Emelyanychev conducted, because this is ROH and if they’re going to have Baroque opera for their main course, they are wise enough to invite music people to match the poshness of their lobby. In other words ❤
He’s like the Currentzis for the discerning audience – all the subtlety of dynamics, none of the whiplash or boxing of singers in between two bouts of interpolated extraneous choruses. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is always wonderful to hear, lucky us here in ye olde (soon to be ye lost in the Atlantic), but I have to say that I have never heard (really, NEVER) better period trumpet interventions. Wow. Whoever you are, you have absolutely ruled last night. Not to say that the oboes, strings or double basses weren’t great. Or, indeed, the fine cembalo playing from Maestro and Steven Devine. The whole sing rocked, the house was full and the laughs were genuine. Can we have more Baroque at ROH now?
PS: Emelyanychev’s cembalo is truly beautiful 🙂 I sat on the horseshoe and looked at it all night.
- turns out it did. T, upon visiting ROH for the first time last week has declared the new and improved ROH the poshest opera house ever. Dehggi: but what about Munich? T: yes, but this is modern posh. So there you have it, the new posh. Not just the finest names in classical music, also the coolest opera lobby experience. ↩
- how she’s going to cope with Come nube I am very curious, after her “expanded horizons” stint as the other Nerone. Which is what I’m trying to get at: I hope exposure to this Nerone will bring more attention to her Monteverdi Nerone, her best role to date in my opinion. ↩
- for the theatre now called Malibran, which we mostly love, minus the humongous moon 😉 from last year’s Orlando. ↩
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.
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 but… It 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!
*Please note that…
Am I the only one who has a sharp intake of breath whenever they have to *please note something regarding casting?
For the much awaited Barbican Agrippina concert performance currently touring I got my tickets last March, that is March 2018 – it was an accident, I am not quite as rabid an early Handel fan, though the amount of Ogni vento I listened to in the past couple of days could have had one fooled. But because of recent I have been known to forget shows I wanted to see (I also forgot to vote today…), I thought checking and rechecking that the show has not happened yet would be a good idea.
What I found out was that the show is still on 31 May BUT now we have to:
*Please note Kathryn Lewek is replaced by Elsa Benoit in the role of Poppea for this performance – well, ok, I guess?
**Please note Marie-Nicole Lemieux is replaced by Xavier Sabata in the role of Ottone for this performance – NOOOOO! …but it could be much worse
***Please note Jakub Jósef Orlinski is replaced by Carlo Vistoli in the role of Narciso for this performance – why, that one could be good!
In case you are wondering, I am not touring along. Round two should be in the Fall, when the Kosky production graces ROH. I guess we are lucky JDD is such a big name and that she likes her Baroque so she can use her influence with the big houses.
2019-2020 will see quite a bit of Agrippina action in London, for which I think we’re all (or at least most) getting excited. Those who were a bit miffed by the ROH cast should take a look at the lineup of the concert version at the Barbican, in May 2019:
Il Pomo d’Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev harpsichord/director
Joyce DiDonato Agrippina
Katryn Lewek Poppea
Marie-Nicole Lemieux Ottone ❤ ❤ ❤
Franco Fagioli Nerone
Luca Pisaroni Claudio
Andrea Mastroni Pallante
Jakub Jósef Orlinski Narciso
Let’s hope nobody cancels!