Review of Agrippina
Dramma per musica in three acts, music by George Frideric Handel, libretto attributed to Vincenzo Grimani, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev, directed by Barrie Kosky, Royal Opera, Monday 23rd September 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones
The men in Agrippina are generally weak and easily manipulated, especially by means of sex. Or as musicologist Panja Mücke puts it, “The male roles in this opera…are completely subordinate to the women…” (‘Revealing Sounds’, Official Programme). Agrippina herself, mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato, a force of nature, deploys her formidable skills of deception at men’s expense. As she avers, “Those who can pretend achieve their desires”. Like monomaniac Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), in John Frankenheimer’s film The Manchurian Candidate, Agrippina is focussed on only one thing, power. Her son Nerone, played by the gifted countertenor Franco Fagioli, and her husband Emperor Claudio, bass Gianluca Buratto, on fine form, are merely means to this end. Of all the characters, only Ottone, countertenor Iestyn Davies, and Poppea, soprano Lucy Crowe, have redeeming features. Both value love over power. They realise that “If you want to find peace cast hatred out of your heart”. Ottone, in particular, “is a model of sincerity throughout” (‘Revealing Sounds’).
Simulated copulation, enforced audience participation, Claudio performing calisthenics, Agrippina brandishing a microphone – director Barrie Kosky’s production style never lets up. Furthermore, this production is arguably over-choreographed. Several of the principal characters seemed afflicted by St Vitus’ dance.
The plot of Agrippina is convoluted, even by operatic standards. There is a disjuncture between Handel’s music and the mannered acting. Everything is played for laughs, with repeated, cynical asides. Nobody is what they purport to be. But these are cavils. We were served a feast of fine singing and Rebecca Ringst’s high tech, multi-tiered set worked brilliantly. All in all, a triumph.