This Handel opera centres on two strong and emotionally skilful women: Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius (Claudio), and Poppea, later wife of Nero (Nerone) – but in this opera, keen to marry Nerone’s friend Ottone. The main plot is that Agrippina is determined that her son Nerone by a previous marriage shall be named as Claudio’s successor, and at the beginning of the opera she has received news that Claudio has drowned at sea. Scheming with Pallante and Narciso she and Nerone have placed themselves on the throne, until news arrives that Claudio has landed at Anzio, rescued by Ottone, who has now been promised the succession.
Yet Ottone confides to the wily Agrippina that more than the throne he loves Poppea. She, much desired by Claudio and Nerone, is no fool, and a worthy contestant to Agrippina in the manipulation of men’s hearts and ambitions. Thus is the scene set for a contest between two strong women, who happily deceive one another while the men remain less dominant in the turn events take. In the end when Ottone firmly renounces the throne and Nerone renounces Poppea, can this emotionally complex story, where truth alternates with dissimulation, be resolved. If the very clever libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimaldi is really a satire on the papal court, with Claudio as the Pope, then one dreads to imagine the political scheming in that establishment.
Vocally it was brilliantly performed, with Joyce DiDonato at the top of her game as a smoothly scheming Agrippina, Lucy Crowe as a charmingly pretty Poppea, and Franco Fagioli demonstrating the depressiveness and the madness of Nerone with his extraordinary coloratura singing. Other roles were superbly sung, with Iestyn Davies as a noble and beautifully sung Ottone, Gianluca Buratto a firm bass as Claudio, plus Andrea Mastroni and Eric Jurenas as Pallante and Narciso, and José Coca Loza as Claudio’s servant Lesbo. All beautifully conducted by the appealingly flamboyant Maxim Emelyanychev from the harpsichord.
As for this production, director Barrie Kosky has tried too hard to make it all huge fun. There is far too much frenetic cavorting about on stage, with the men occasionally behaving like overexcited teenagers, and one can only hope that this self-indulgent production might be toned down for later performances. The stark lighting and rectangular lines give an unnecessarily clinical impression, and at one point in the second half a blindingly bright stage made it hard not to close one’s eyes. When the massive rectangular box of a set, divided into three, turned at odd moments it was not clear why.
Some judicious cuts may have helped, but with a half-hour interval the whole thing lasted nearly four hours and ended with a slow piece from one of Handel’s oratorios. In Handel’s time it would have ended with dances. As Kosky himself says, he wanted to show the exhaustion and loneliness that comes over Agrippina, but it all felt too much and I’d rather have seen some jolly dances.
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