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!
This show could be summed up simply as:
But it actually was a very entertaining evening even beyond the Galoumisù daydreaming.
A funny thing happened right before the performance started. First, I firmly demanded my seat back from a gent, only to realise I was in the wrong row – because surely I wasn’t sitting in the second row, was I? Yes, I was. I don’t even know how long ago I bought this ticket, possibly last decade 😉 All I remembered was that it was on the left side of the stalls. Well, it turned out I was 2m away from the performers, and judging by Anik’s curtain call picture from TADW, just where Galoumisù would be positioned. I just now realise that was her position at curtain call but hey! wishful thinking can work in your favour (she didn’t wear the pumpkin dress but the steel-purplish one was
backless fine as well).
Lady in front row: this is row B! Everything is confusing in this hall!
Gent sitting next to me in row C: this building is designed to help people get lost. So, come here often?
dehggi: [haha] yes, all the time! What brought you here this evening?
Gent row C: actually, I’ve a soft spot for Galou.
Now THAT is the way to chat dehggi up 😀 After a bit of Galoumisù fan…personing, we realised we were from the same neck of Eastern Europe. What are the odds?!
Serse: Franco Fagioli (aka, the beans)
Arsamene: Vivica Genaux
Amastre: Delphine Galou (aka, Galoumisù)
Romilda: Inga Kalna
Atalanta: Francesca Aspromonte
Elviro: Biagio Pizzuti
Ariodate: Andreas Wolf (uncredited by the Barbican site (bad Barbican!) but there are like 3 Handel basses doing the rounds these days)
Conductor: Maxim Emelyanychev | Il pomo d’oro (aka, pomodoro = the tomato)
There was a high level of involvement from everyone, down to curtain call antics (Aspromonte singlehandedly1 clearing up some music stands for access to the front of the stage, Genaux trying to sneak her music book back and Galoumisù graciously handing it to her, Genaux mocking Aspromonte’s pulling up her dress so she could walk faster, Pizzuti giving his (real) bouquet to the string player he’d pestered as Elvira, the fake florist etc.).
I finally saw Fagioli act! Now Serse is a role where he can be himself 😉 The endless rows of ornamenti and consummate self absorption fit Serse to a t (or to an s). Even him walking off stage after every aria, regardless of drama around him fit, because it falls right into Handel’s intended mockery of everyone’s melodrama.
I love the structure of this opera even more than I love the arias per se. The Serse-trademark speech interrupted by singing interrupted by speech interrupted by more singing feels so fresh and modern (or Neapolitan, perhaps?). Go Papa Handel! I love how he lavishes great tunes for only a minute or so and isn’t afraid to go back to Spechgesang all I’m playin’ wid’ya! All of the characters are made fun or – and in turn make fun of others. I love how characters just pop up when it’s convenient for them to do so –
Romilda (supposedly alone): oh, Serse, that tyrant!
Serse (cheerful): anyone mention my name?
[much later on:]
Romilda (when she’s run out of sensible arguments against Serse’s pestering): ok, my lord, it will be as you wish!
Arsamene (supposedly not in the room): ok, my lord, it will be as you wish! So much for your ardently professed faithfulness!
Before we go forward, let’s talk a bit about Fagioli, the star of the night. Now that I sat so close and after we have discussed him at length, I can see the vibrato and I can feel the tension – indeed it’s so great, half the time I’m afraid he’ll blow a gasket. Singing doesn’t have to look like a Strong Man competition. But it can and in his case it sure does. I’m also amused about his stance, which is always on the verge of Olé!
His acting was much more involved than usual and with flashes of comedic brilliance, especially when dismissing others (which Serse does a lot) or “wooing” Romilda (who knew he had it in him?!) but the ornamenti felt a bit noodly and, as much as he can do it, I’ve heard more sparkling Crude furies. Perhaps unfair of me to say that, as it comes so late in the game, but maybe if he didn’t pack so much tension from the start… Ombra mai fu felt like his best moment of the night, vocally. Or it’s just me always connecting to his softer singing
The public loved him, of course, but I’ve seen him so many times now that, as earwormopera once said about JDD,
Is there such a thing as awesome fatigue? I’ve heard DiDonato live quite a few times now, and I think I may be chasing the dragon, in a sense that she’s as good as she always is, but I’m so used to it that it doesn’t stun me as much as it did the first time.
So I have a feeling this would be a good point to call it a day as far as following Franco. Blaze of glory and all that.
What with all the excitement about other characters, Kalna’s Romilda got less applause than she should have. She did some fine juxtapositions of quiet and loud singing that showed great control and her voice is as flexible as ever. Romilda is one of those costante amante that have endless woe is me, I’m so oppressed but I will stay true to my principles arias and get energetic only once in the last act (right about the time she gets annoyed at Arsamene for not trusting her after all this effort, bless her heart), which was the one time she also got deserved applause. The woman is very versatile and underrated.
Genaux, Galoumisù and Aspromonte were kickin’ it in heels. When you sit so close to the stage you have ample opportunity to ponder on singers’ walking gear, which is level with your nose (or, if you’re particularly short, your hairline). I don’t think you’ll be surprised if I told you Galoumisù wins the stiletto competition. How she skips around in them I don’t know, but they are spiky, high and stylish as all getout. Let me take a(nother) minute to
Ok, back to women’s oppressive footwear. Genaux’s Arsamene was going for that Goth look where men wear leather, heels and eyeliner – or she was just taking the men right out of Arsamene. The shoes weren’t bad, consisting of a patch of black leather (also worn at TADW), but Galoumisù’s silver bead pair to accessorise the purplish dress was in a different class altogether. Aspromonte wore a pair of practical white pumps, which was why she could “roll up her sleeves” and organise the music stands 😉 We don’t know what Kalna wore under the turquoise dress.
Genaux is Genaux and although I doubt I’ll ever be a fan, Arsamene sits well for her, plus she can act and seems to have a sense of humour that she can adapt to the chumminess that usually runs through Baroque specialist circles.
As the night went on, I came to a conclusion on the issue I have with Aspromonte, who has so far been a very reliable performer if uneven at hitting that emotional spot with me (best fit: the trouser role of Alceste in Arianna in Creta). As far as I’m concerned, Atalanta is one of those roles owned by Piau. Aspromonte’s voice is less light, so the impishness does not come out of her vocal delivery alone. Atalanta is a very young and cunning girl, who has the guts to compete with her older sister for love and the selfishness to use any means necessary to get the man when he’s not responding to her wiles. Amusingly, her plans get thwarted by adults who aren’t as easy to manipulate as she thinks they are. Aspromonte is good and very convincing dramatically, especially in that girlish pink dress.
Pizzuti as Elviro was a riot at Elvira, as he needed to be. Elvira the florist’s entrance was hilariously loud and garish, smack dab into Amastre’s heartfelt moaning about being betrayed by her adored Serse. That’s what I’m talking about! While we’re at it, you gotta love the piss taken out of opera disguises, what with Elviro’s hastily applied head scarf and super obviously fake woman’s voice or Amastre’s equally fail “en travesti”, which consisted of a long-ish and clashingly unstylish coat on top of her very “royal” dress. We could totally believe she was a warrior forged in the heat of battle! Haha.
Then we have Wolf’s Ariodate, opera’s most amiable army commander. He’s basically there to say yes, Your Highness! and confuse matters at THE crucial moment of the opera. Plus he’s been in charge of the Most Badass Bridge of the Ancient World, to link Asia with Europe and crown Serse’s ambitions at conquering the world. Both Elviro and Amastre take pot shots at the bridge’s reliability. Is there nothing sacred in this libretto, you will ask? Nothing, gentle reader, nothing.
Except Amastre’s gorgeousness. Are you ready for more eyelash batting? OMG. So you know how she usually doesn’t get applause because contralto or something – possibly the narrow beam effect2. But this time I was determined to rectify this, so as soon as Amastre’s vengeange aria finished and she started to walk away I wrestled the clapping right out of the audience (I’ll be sending in my application to the Strong Person contest, too). So she actually turned around and gave us a little curtsy and me (I hope it was me) her cheeky smile. Dehggi = in love!
gentle readers: wait a minute, dehggi, you’ve been batting the eyelashes at Galou’s altar for how long now?
dehggi: since March 2015. Your point? Love needs to be tended to on a daily basis.
fellow Galou fan: she has such an exquisite voice.
dehggi: where do you think Galoumisù comes from? And I love her manner of singing, though I still don’t quite know how to characterise it. There’s something she does with sound that’s very cool; it’s not simply beautiful singing, it’s sculpted sound (from my Giulio Cesare in Vienna review: […] timing and interactions with the orchestra – the way she got in and out of the phrase and how that blended with the sound around her).
fellow Galou fan: in my opinion she’s very beautiful.
But I was actually talking about Andreas Wolf as Ariodate, right? You don’t remember that? Well, I was. I like his voice a lot, one of those flexible basses that can cope with Baroque coloratura without forcing the gates at the Strong Man contest (yes, I know, this post is all about English breakfast, Italofrench desert and the Strong Man contest. I’m trying to tell it like it is).
I know a lot of people really dig on Emelyanychev’s antics but to me he’s equally as ready to join the Strong Man contest as Mr Argentinian Bean. He looks like he’s wrestling the sound out of his very talented string players, to the point it made me wonder if, left to their own devices, they’d suddenly feel lost at sea and end up sounding like Disarmonia. That being said, 4 hours pass like nothing under his care and his singers are greatly taken care of, especially our evening’s beans on toast, whom he was setting up to soar. What can I tell you about the Attack of the Baroque Tomatoes? That string sound is sweet and they can roque without sounding like they’re trying hard to be cool. But to be honest, sitting on a side I don’t think I got the best of their abilities, except for the strings on the left that I keep mentioning and which healed the still lacerating wounds caused by… that which shall only be named once in this paragraph.
Moral of the story: a) the very front is for getting the best out of the singers, stay further back for the band, b) talk to your neighbours, they might be your real life neighbours, c) someone two people over to my right was – very obviously – recording the show so it could surface somewhere. I wanted to talk to her about it but my neighbour distracted me. Oh, well, sometimes pleasant memories are better than overly scrutinised reality 😉
But since I failed to bring the camera along when sitting smack dab in front of the stage, let me leave you with a shot of the general area of where I think Franco is (supposedly) twirling in the above poster, as seen from Santa Maria della Salute:
Dear all, this month has been busier than usual and it’s only now that I get around to writing about this wonderful performance! Sorry all about the delay, it’s the madness of everything, work and fun, amping up at the same time, so I ended up running from one to the other, like a headless but musical chicken.
There are two things about Halle: it seems it’s always unbearbly hot in June (like 30C and up, plus humidity) and the Ulrichskirche is inescapable. Other than that = fabulous.
Early June is too early for London to get that hot-busy, so for me it was a bit of a shock to the system (we’ve updated ourselves to Summer heat since, especially this week). It’s now one of those memories, very akin to childhood ones, of thadieu, Agathe and I walking up the tram tracks in the scorching sun, in an effort to get to the road we needed to be on for the airbnb. I have a vague feeling we complicated our lives a bit but that’s what fun memories are made of!
We quickly took showers and then headed off for some before-the-show grub. Once again, Halle was deader than a Dodo. We speculated some but our host came to the rescue and revealed the dark secret: everyone and their cat was out at the beach. Yes, thanks to the river, there is such a thing even this deep inland. Indeed, on the way to grub we ran into people with beach bags. Apparently the locals were expecting thunder storms with their lunch but seeing as how those got postponned, people took the opportunity to roast themselves in the sun and cool themselves in the Saale river. We thought maybe next year we should make it a longer trip and avail ourselves of the beach as well.
As you can imagine with this cast, there is very little more one can want musically aside from less humidity. The singers braved 30C for 4 hours, which is one of the most commendable efforts I’ve yet witnessed with my opera. And they sang well, too! I don’t know how they did it. True, water bottles were consumed throughout and there was liberal fanning – of your colleague, as well, which only made it all more congenial and down to earth (although by that I don’t mean to say singers should endure these temperatures day in, day out). The ladies singing ladies at least wore dresses, but Nesi had on a frock and Hallenberg a suit – whew!
Though everyone’s Baroque chops are superior, this was hands down Hallenberg’s show. The Energiser Bunny had nothing on her. She just merely spun really complicated arias and probably would’ve still gone on into the night, with an ease and cheerfulness that still looks amazing even after you’ve seen her several times.
Aspromonte was a bit of a revelation to me, as I hadn’t quite felt her in Vivaldi. I know everyone else praised her, but there you go. Here, though, and in a Vagaus-like trouser role at that, she sounded very good and enthusiastic, with enough energy throughout to match her experienced colleagues. It was very sweet of Hallenberg to give her a friendly push onto the stage when Aspromonte’s Alceste had to sing right after a bring-down-the-house aria by Teseo.
As Giulia noted (in her account of this performance), Arianna fits Gauvin’s voice really well (it sits at that not very high spot where her voice is at its most beautiful) and she threw in some cool and interesting ornaments in that bigger, more furious aria Arianna has (sorry if I’m not very well acquainted with the opera – most of Arianna’s arias are somewhat anguished but there is one that has kick to it).
This was the first time I heard Nesi and Hammarstrom live and they both lived up to their respective names. I was a bit irked when Emelyanychev, who had been thus far very accomodating to his singers (especially Gauvin, who strikes me like the kind of woman who will work out the best deal for herself 😉 which is a good thing!), all of a sudden let the horns loose on a particularly rambunctious Tauride aria.
Now the thing is, Tauride seems to have all the horn arias (which is also a good thing – we need more horn arias), so it was more than once that Nesi’s very solid low notes were swallowed by the combined efforts of the horns and Ulrichskirche acoustics. Most of us know that Nesi has one of the most reliable chest registers among mezzos, one of the very few mezzos who can sing Holofernes without sounding like the ship is sinking. So I wanted to hear those notes! Anyway, her singing was excellent and she has this sort of cool but badass aura to her that is unique.
Hammarstrom is a very different singer, rather reserved in manner and with a lyric piangency to her equally reliable chest register. Though she’s a Bradamante veteran, here she sang a girly-girl (Teseo’s ex?), who’s eventually whisked off by Alceste for the happy ending (we joked that Alceste and Carilda return for the finale after a lengthy period, in which one could only imagine what is happening).
Wolf seems to be a veteran of Halle bass(-baritone?) roles and he sounded good here too, putting some fear into Arianna (is he her dad?). I’m low on details but the gist of this particular Arianna story is she’s in trouble (with the Minotaur?) and Teseo flies to her/her people’s rescue, they fall in love, there’s some typical Baroque drama with exes and rivals but they finally get married or whatever the equivalent was in Creta back then. This story does not hint at all at what will happen in Naxos, all is Teseo ❤ Arianna here.
Speaking of an opera that isn’t very often performed, the team made it flow seamlessly for 4 hours, which is another excellent achievement. I could quite see how without a cast, orchestra and conductor of this level it could flag. Really looking forward to hear Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d’Oro later this year, under better acoustic conditions.
About two thirds into the show thunder and lightning arrived in Halle but by the time the show ended we were actually happy for some rain. So we, joined by Giulia since intermission, ran around a bit, looking for a place to sit down and chat and possibly eat/drink something.
Now this was 11:30pm on a Sunday morning and the centre of Halle had, as far as we could see, about 2 1/2 places still open. We finally chose a shisha bar, of all things, only because it looked like it was gonna be open indefinitely and had room to sit. The bar staff were actually cool and turned off the awful music on offer, though whether that was for our benefit or because it was late I can’t tell. But I for one really appreciated the effort and we went on chatting for a good while into the night.
ps: sorry, Giulia, I said I didn’t have any pictures from the curtain call – turns out I did have this one and it somehow got lost amidst all the other 2018 opera trip ones.
All I have to say right now is: amazing performance 😀 even the usual poor acoustics of the venue could not hinder it.
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!