NEW YORK –Handel’s early, lavishly enjoyable Agrippina came to the Metropolitan Opera on Feb. 6, brilliantly conducted by Harry Bicket and featuring one of the century’s great Handelian singers, Joyce DiDonato, in a scintillating turn as the titular scheming empress. The Kansas-born mezzo-soprano has made this role – equal parts Mama Rose and Machiavellian gangster moll – very much her own in a recent staging in London, as well as in a just-released recording under Maxim Emelyanychev.
DiDonato’s brilliant performance, the fine singing of a number of other cast members, and the alert, detailed orchestral playing under Bicket make this Agrippina a real event, and not to be missed when it’s shown in HD broadcast on Feb. 29. The often manically lively and ultimately facile production by David McVicar (one of the go-to directors of the Met’s Peter Gelb regime) left more mixed impressions. But the camera editing inherent in the transfer to movie screens usually masks excesses both directorial — endemic to current new productions at the Met — or in this case, choreographic.
The 1709 opera drolly parades Roman dynastic (and amatory) struggles at a midpoint between I, Claudius and L’incoronazione di Poppea. Not yet locked into his later near-reliance on da capo aria structure, Handel’s score presents many interesting experiments in form: brief ariosos, a quartet, and ensembles punctuated by recitative. As usual, there are some bracing bravura pieces and haunting slow numbers, plus one affecting love duet between the virtuous Ottone, whose heroic rescue of the emperor temporarily derails Agrippina’s ambitions, and Poppea, the courtesan also beloved by Claudio as well as Agrippina’s son and ambition-object Nerone.
DiDonato unleashes her full arsenal of Baroque mastery, showcasing stellar runs and trills, a considerable range, sovereign layering of dynamics, and a keen command of messa di voce (matched by the oboe in the complex tripartite aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate,” deservedly cheered. Every phrase, note, and word gets meaningful inflection. She has a great deal of fun with the part’s bitchery and displays considerable terpsichorean talent, yet even at Agrippina’s most extreme moments, DiDonato’s Empress remains a recognizable and consistently drawn human being. In the beautifully still final aria, “Se vuoi pace,” addressed to Claudio – mercifully, it is calmly and simply staged by McVicar — DiDonato even suggests that the empress loves her husband on some level deeper than power-mongering.
Ottone, the libretto’s sole virtuous character, was created by a contralto, not a castrato. (Three years later, the same Francesca Vanini-Boschi premiered Goffredo in Rinaldo, also now often awarded to countertenors.) Iestyn Davies, a favorite collaborator of Bicket’s, is an exquisite vocalist and highly accomplished musician; he figures in the Met’s future plans as Cesare. As Ottone, his slow, lightly accompanied numbers – like the despairing, stop-time “Voi che udite,” sung in front of the forecurtain, and the bucolic “Vaghe fonti,” cleverly staged with the upstanding, uniformed Ottone pouring himself a mineral water – were wonderful to hear. Yet the up-tempo arias with heavier instrumentation, like “Lusinghiera mia speranza,” made less visceral impact.
Juilliard-trained soprano Brenda Rae, a rising star in Europe, made an equivocal debut as Poppea — an uneven Handelian performance like her recent concert tour as Semele and her Lyric Opera of Chicago Ginevra (Ariodante), both with Bicket. Rae commands some parts of a highly impressive bel canto technique, including killer staccatos; but here the actual tone was, for the opera’s first two acts at least, unrounded and cloudy. She often achieved velocity at the price of accuracy and even audibility. A Met debut is no easy task, and she’ll doubtless relax into her assignment. A tall, leggy figure, she gamely channeled Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw in Poppea’s sexpot role. Yet I thought McVicar’s having her play her “sleep” scene as drunk was pretty debatable.
The show did not drag on, at least not for those used to Handelian forms: With one intermission between the first and second of the score’s three acts, it ran about three and a half hours. By usual “big house” standards, this signaled a fairly generous edition, yet there were considerable cuts. Some numbers were shortened (like Poppea’s challenging entrance aria “Vaghe perle”); the “dea ex machina” contralto character of Giunone (Juno), to whom Handel allots a final recitative and aria, disappeared altogether. But McVicar seemed constantly anxious that the audience would grow restless and larded virtually every scene with distracting extras, usually rail-thin attractive dancers seemingly designed to buoy along the crowd’s tired business people. They dance, prance (Poppea’s “gay besties” fawningly crowding her couch struck me as bordering on internalized homophobia on the director’s part), make drinks, mime televised news coverage, improbably overhear the actual characters’ ultra-secret negotiations, and constantly draw focus from the principals who are singing.
Agrippina’s libretto, by the savvy Vatican political operative Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, is, especially by Baroque opera standards, genuinely and unexpectedly funny. Yet McVicar’s crowded, manic direction often pushed too far into the realm of ironic parody. We heard tons of his trademark (and to me unpardonably unmusical) cackling, murmuring, and applauding over the music. Far too much of the action courted (and received) the laughter of audience members less responsive to keenly inflected singing or instrumental subtlety (much evident in the fine obbligato work) than to television-derived posturing.
Kate Lindsey’s entire performance as the coke-snorting Nerone was a bravura demonstration of physical control and Johnny Depp-ish hipster posing; would that similar care had gone into her singing, which was unremittingly loud and unpleasant in “Col saggio tuo consiglio,” affected with “funny-voice syndrome” in most other numbers and only rewarding in the rocking-rhythm “Quando invita la donna l’amante,” when she showed her fine legato and handsome tone. The riotous, clouds-of-cocaine staging of “Come nube che fugge dal vento” and Handel’s brilliant music won cheers, but Lindsey skated over the coloratura rather than executing it. The supporting singers were uniformly strong. There are two servile courtiers, baritone Duncan Rock, fluent in coloratura if a little weak at the bottom as Pallante, and stylish, sonorous countertenor Nicholas Tamagna (a fairly late substitution) in a company debut as Narciso. Christian Zaremba sounded splendid in the scanty music Handel awarded Lesbo, Claudio’s “fixer.”
The company tends — as in its recent billing of the often-staged Pêcheurs de perles as some kind of rediscovery— to overemphasize its offerings’ novelty. Welcome as it is to see Agrippina on its stage, the work has been given impressively within the last 20 years at Glimmerglass (2001), Santa Fe (2004), New York City Opera (2007), Boston Lyric Opera (2011), and Juilliard (2017). Bicket in fact led the Glimmerglass and Santa Fe performances. Major singers (Christine Goerke, Nelly Miricioiu, Caroline Worra as the Empress, Christophe Dumaux, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jakub Jozef Orlinski as Ottone, for starters) have taken part.
I liked the simplicity, inherent symbolism, and singer-friendly acoustic of John Macfarlane’s imperially heavy wall units and (much-deployed) golden staircase to the throne. Having the historically doomed characters sing their final “lieto fine” chorus from atop named tombs – a kind of variant on Victor Hugo (and Donizetti’s) coup-de-théâtre in Lucrezia Borgia – was an amusing touch. However, the drop curtains Macfarlane provided of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (it returns at evening’s end with a bloodied wolf cadaver, betokening Nero’s matricidal ingratitude) and – worse, and more clichéd – the pouty “Marilyn” moue backing Poppea’s domestic scenes, echoed too closely the gaping, increasingly gory maw at the design center of his Hansel and Gretel set, on view at the Met since 2007. Macfarlane went to town on the women’s too-fabulous costumes, often shed. At one point, Poppea changed in full view of the audience in a way one doubts a female director would have countenanced.
Bulky bass Matthew Rose, who sang Claudio expertly save for a very few underpowered subterranean notes, proved a good comedian and a good sport, literally, when putting golf balls into the wings, as well as figuratively when dreaming himself a Magic Mike-class stripper during “Vieni, o cara.” Inevitably, the irascible, womanizing Emperor’s public appearances found Rose in a boxy blue suit with a too-long Trumpian red tie. This touch signaled McVicar’s bringing the decades-old show – which in Brussels and Paris in 2000 traded on evocations of Bill, Hillary, and Monica Lewinsky – more up to date.
Paule Constable’s warm lighting joined her Satyagraha and Le Nozze di Figaro designs as among her strongest company efforts. Andrew George’s high camp choreography, well executed by the dancers, stole focus again and again (including from Bradley Brookshire’s bravura onstage harpsichord work); having two sailors cavort as archly “smart” back-up dancers to Ottone’s “Coronato il crin d’alloro” merely reworked “Da tempeste” from Glyndebourne’s Giulio Cesare.
Whatever my reservations about the staging’s overly louche tone, this Agrippina was a genuine pleasure to hear, and DiDonato and Davies’ expert performances should translate brilliantly onto the HD screens Feb. 29. For more information, go here.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues. He has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Symphony, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.