The Royal Opera's new production of Agrippina stars Joyce DiDonato, Lucy Crowe and Iestyn Davies
Review: Agrippina10:09, 3rd October 2019
Agrippina – Handel
Royal Opera House, London
Review by Robert Thicknesse
Forget ‘less is more’. If you’re Barrie Kosky, more is more – although clearly never enough. Kosky and wunderkind conductor Maxim Emelyanychev together cooked up an exhausting evening with many good qualities at Covent Garden in this new production of Handel’s youthful outburst. But despite throwing the kitchen sink – and the rest of the batterie de cuisine – at the opera, much misses the mark, many of those good qualities getting swamped in the deluge that comes from mucking about in kitchens.
Although little scenery remains unchewed, it’s actually rather a controlled Joyce DiDonato who plays the tiger mum, seducing and tricking le tout Rome to get son Nero on the throne. Recent concert performances of Handel (including Agrippina with the same conductor and similar cast at the Barbican a few months back) have shown that DiDonato’s preferred mode, when unmediated by a director, is a kind of Les Dawson panto-dame; too much even for Kosky, apparently, who for once must have had to say, ‘Joycey, darling, tone it down a bit’ in rehearsal.
This Agrippina’s behaviour came at some cost to her as well as her entourage. We’re used to the unscripted whooping and yelping that Kosky likes his cast to emit; here, DiDonato would break off in the middle of a line to give a wordless animal groan or sob. Verge of a breakdown or just getting into character for her next faux-tearful wool-pulling? Maybe both.
She sang with really extraordinary art, extracting enviable shades of tone and meaning out of harmless little recits, the arias pinpoint in intent and import, with superhuman vocal control and coloratura; old-time vocal acting, the character entirely projected though the voice, plus real stage nous. She’s great at the regal body language, the dismissive toss of the head, the sashaying swagger. Really, it’s more than any audience could reasonably ask: she’s been at the absolute height of her career for over a decade but this is as good as anything of hers I’ve seen.
She was supported by terrific performances by Lucy Crowe (Poppea) and Iestyn Davies, well cast as gloomy Ottone, the closest Agrippina gets to a moral centre. Crowe is put under extreme stress by Emelyanychev’s excitable speeds and by Kosky’s freaked-out sex-kitten characterisation of someone actually striving to learn how to be human – but she butches it out womanfully. Her voice always had bags more soul than your average soubrette, and has a palette of colours to rival DiDonato’s, albeit much softer-grained. There’s real moral force to her singing, and it was the evening’s most beautiful too: the half-voiced da capo of her reconciliation aria with Ottone, ‘Esci, o mia vita’, was breathtaking, and their subsequent duet – a courtly minuet – the limpid, still centre of the storm.
Emelyanychev elicited a lively performance from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, though it’s a band living on reputation that tragically lacks bite. Any hope for an organic musical performance was undone by Kosky’s jerky, frantic staging, which told us little about the piece or the characters. Kosky’s grown-up staging of Saul at Glyndebourne – emphasising the political gravity, the sense that weighty things are at stake – was quite absent. Agrippina depends on the notion that these psychos wield the power of life and death over the world. You should laugh, but the laugh should freeze on your lips at the horror. Otherwise Agrippina is no Lady Macbeth, just Alexis Carrington, and nothing much matters.
Confusion and neurosis is the big impression: the idea being the frenzy for sex and power into which Agrippina’s plots put everyone, I guess. Franco Fagioli’s writhing, twitching, creepy Nerone (much groped by mama) is insinuatingly done, but the squawky bleating he emits instead of singing now is hard to take. Gianluca Buratto, singing Claudio, has a velvety basso cantante that lacked a fifth at the bottom. The less said about the courtiers, deprived of all point or dignity for cheap laughs which never came, the better.
Rebecca Ringst’s design – an ingenious unfolding cage that becomes rooms and staircases, with many rather noisy Venetian blinds – was on a pretty constant revolve and this, with the cast charging endlessly around it, substituted for meaningful stage action or the building of character through physical gesture. After about three hours of flouncy campery – cartoonish scamperings colliding with a would-be Ray Cooney-style Where’s My Trousers? farce – Kosky changed direction in Agrippina’s late aria ‘Se vuoi pace’, presented as an entirely sincere thirst for peace. Well, OK, but it smacks of wanting the piece to be something it isn’t. At the end, Agrippina, blanked by everyone during the final chorus, sat in the dark as the shutters came down and the orchestra played the gorgeous reverie ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’ from L’Allegro. It was nice, but I didn’t buy it – because I’d been sold something else entirely for the previous three acts.