Joyce Di Donato and her travelling Agrippina circus landed at the Barbican hall, in London, where they performed the wonderful Handel’s opera in concert form. Well, it was actually a semi-staged form, because there was a lot of acting going on. A lot. But let’s start from the orchestra: Il Pomo d’oro, led by Maxim Emelyanchev at the harpsichord. They are fantastic. The sound, the precision, the phrasing. Emelyanchev is very explicit; he moves a lot on stage, it’s a pleasure to watch. He also looks just about 12, but his ensemble clearly trusts him and follows him, his leadership strong and secure. The continuo was a delight, the first cello in particular, I loved him.
Agrippina tells a tale of political intrigues in Rome in the I century a.D. The death of Emperor Claudio is announced, during his campaign against the Britons; his wife Agrippina seizes the chance and manages to have her son (from a previous marriage) Nerone declared the new Caesar. In this endeavor she takes advantage of two suitors, Narciso and Pallante, who help her, each believing that she will accept him as a husband. Claudio was not dead after all, and he arrives, Nerone is hastily removed. Ottone, one of Claudio’s generals, was responsible for saving Claudio’s life, so the emperor decides to leave the throne to him. Agrippina is desperate, and finds new lies and schemes to overthrow Ottone. Ottone is in love with Poppea, she loves him back, but she is also pursued by Claudio and Nerone. Ottone shares his love pangs with Agrippina, asking her to speak to Poppea in his favor; Agrippina of course tells Poppea that Ottone has betrayed her and “given” her to Claudio in exchange for the throne.
Poppea is desperate, and, following Agrippina’s suggestion, tells Claudio that Ottone is pursuing her, and, arrogant in his new imperial status, has prohibited her from seeing Claudio. Claudio is furious, denounces Ottone as a traitor, strips him of the promised laurel, and shames him in front of everybody. Nobody offers support, and he’s desperate. At this point things get weird. Narciso and Pallante talk to each other and realize that Agrippina is playing them one against the other. Poppea talks to Ottone (the only opera in the world where the two deceived lovers actually TALK TO EACH OTHER and avoid further doom) and realizes that Agrippina has been playing her. So Poppea takes revenge, in a strange game of men hiding behind furniture in her bedroom worthy of Le nozze di Figaro. In the end Agrippina’s intrigues are revealed, but she manages to lead the narrative, and turn the events in her favor. Claudio, aware that he’s not without fault (with his chasing Poppea’s skirt), decides to throw a blanked pardon on all, Ottone and Poppea will get married, Nerone will be his successor (Ottone was not that interested in ruling anyway), and he and Agrippina will live happily thereafter. More or less.
The singers did all a fantastic job; the level of this cast was incredible. Also their interpretation was heartfelt, they managed to tell the story beautifully, even without (or because of the lack of) scenery and “director’s interpretations”. As the consumed professionals they are, they thoroughly understood their characters and knew how to make them come alive. Their interpretation was lively, original, nuanced, much more than in many staged operas with an ignorant director giving directions (looking at you and your hair gel, Peter Sellars).
Joyce Di Donato and Franco Fagioli (Agrippina and Nerone) put up a splendid show. Laugh-out-loud funny; they never broke character, not even when the cheers and applause after a particularly successful aria didn’t want to stop, not even when they went to sit down while others were singing. Di Donato used her reading glasses as an acting device for the whole performance, looking at people above them, scratching her head with the stems, nibbling at them in deep thought. Her impatience towards all the idiotic men around her was perfectly relatable. Some of the best subtle eye rolls I’ve ever seen. Fagioli gave life to a weak, spoiled, not particularly smart brat, a coward completely subjugated by his powerful mom. His expression was always a mixture of creepy, mischievous and excited/terrified. He managed to upstage other singers while sitting down and doing nothing, just watching around with that little creepy face. Some of the gags between them were absolutely hilarious, and he, in general, was really funny and seemed to enjoy himself a lot. He also had the most outrageous pair of sparkling red shoes, kind of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
Musically, her voice sounded in better shape than when I last heard her as Semiramide in Munich, no strain on the high notes, solid in the coloratura, great in the only deep, heartfelt aria she gets to sing, “Pensieri”. Fagioli was his usual pyrotechnic self; his coloratura is just unbelievable, and the particularly high score fit him like a glove, he also was spectacular in the high notes.
Ottone was Xavier Sabata, who substituted for Marie-Nicole Lemieux. I would have loved to hear Lemieux as Ottone, but Sabata was one of the best singers on stage. Never heard him sing so well. His voice is not as penetrating and projected as Fagioli’s, and neither it is as deep and full of colors, but he was amazing. Confident in the coloratura and the high notes, very committed to the character, his lamentation aria “Voi che udite il mio lamento” was, for me, the highlight of the evening. The shaping of the phrases, the slight sob in the voice, the dialogue with the violins. Mamma mia. Bravo Xavi!
Elsa Benoit substituted for Kathryn Lewek, who’s just had a baby, as Poppea, and this was the substitution I feared the most. Lewek is a genius, with a peculiar, deep voice. Benoit is good. Don’t get me wrong. High, bright, silvery, she has it all. But she’s a bit monochrome, she sings everything a bit the same. Also, her acting was much more subdued and less interesting than of her colleagues. She was not a disappointment, because she truly sang well. But. You know.
Luca Pisaroni was also a bit of a disappointment, I have to say. His coloratura didn’t seem on point, he just does not have the super low notes needed in “Cade il mondo” (he went around it with professionalism and know-how anyway). He sings in the nose a bit too often, and was pretty wooden on stage. Claudio is not a great character anyway, but he just relied on his (admittedly impressive) stage presence to convey the authority of the emperor, more than on his acting. All right, he wasn’t this bad, he sings well, and his voice is beautiful, I’m picky.
Narciso and Pallante were countertenor Carlo Vistoli and bass Andrea Mastroni. Vistoli was substituting for Orlinski; his voice is smooth and he sings very well, but let’s say that it is one further step away from Fagioli’s depth and variety of colors. I had a better memory of him in Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso in Venice, maybe he wasn’t in perfect shape. Mastroni had a very powerful instrument, and in my opinion he would have been a better Claudio than Pisaroni. Not very elegant, perhaps, but effective, also in the coloratura. Last but not least, Biagio Pizzuti did a great job as Lesbo, Claudio’s servant and “matchmaker”. He has a very pleasant baritone and a true feeling for comedy, his timing is perfect.
Half of my opera twitter was there, plus my fellow blogger Dehggi (here her review), we hung out and drank till the wee hours and I had SO MUCH FUN!!