Joyce DiDonato seduces you within the first 10 minutes: Royal Opera’s Agrippina reviewed

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

‘Laws bow down before the desire to rule…’ Centuries before ‘proroguing’ had entered British breakfast-table vocabulary there was Handel’s Agrippina, and centuries before that there was the woman herself. Sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius (who she may or may not have poisoned) and mother of Nero (by whom she was eventually executed), Agrippina was a true political animal: instigator, manipulator, machinatrix and far more.

It’s a heady story in prose, so add a bit of poetic licence and a score by the 24-year-old Handel and you have a spicy blend of politics, satire and sex — Succession with a Roman accent.

Let’s pass over the bewilderment that it has taken the Royal Opera more than 300 years to stage the piece and celebrate instead the fact that England’s flagship house has finally arrived at one of Handel’s greatest black comedies, staged here by the Komische Oper’s in-demand artistic director Barrie Kosky. Perhaps they were waiting for a mezzo big enough to fill Agrippina’s gilded sandals? In Joyce DiDonato they certainly have one. But it’s testimony to a real ensemble cast that, despite her mesmerising central performance, the result is far from the DiDonato Show.

Kosky and designer Rebecca Ringst house Handel’s gallery of grotesques in a sleek revolving box, all chrome and steel and strip-lit, surgically white interiors — the plain sight in which schemes and intrigue must hide. Fortress or prison, penthouse or battleship, it’s a stylish frame for Kosky’s eccentrics and outsiders, whose slick tailoring and contemporary couture (Klaus Bruns, striking just the right note of excess) hold neurosis, ambition and perversion in check. At least at first glance.

DiDonato’s Agrippina is all imperious control and weaponised sexuality, a consummate performer who seduces two courtiers (as well as the audience) within the first ten minutes, all in the name of getting her son elected Emperor. This blurring of worlds is key to Kosky’s concept, which swiftly turns the spotlight out on to the auditorium. Nero (the deliciously awkward Franco Fagioli, a cringing, teenage figure in skinny jeans and too many tattoos) delivers his stump speech while mingling gingerly with the plebs in the stalls, glad-handing and simpering with the best of them. The message is clear: these characters may be monsters to a man, but we made them that way, taken in by smooth words and smiling promises.

Having lit so many dramatic fuses, the production then sits back and watches each as it fizzes towards inevitable explosion, propelled by the exhilarating pace and electricity coming from Maxim Emelyanychev’s pit. A climactic bedroom farce episode for Lucy Crowe’s Poppea and her many rival suitors strains patience (though the doorbell playing the Hallelujah Chorus gets plenty of laughs), stage business becomes unnecessarily frenetic and the revolve creaks and whirrs distractingly, but the tension holds.

Having braced his audience for impact, however, Kosky then cuts the wires at the last possible second. Schemes sour and emotion takes over in an unexpected, off-score conclusion that twists us suddenly towards tragedy. It’s skilfully handled — an effortless sleight of hand.

Musically things are no less slick. DiDonato gives her finest performance in this house for years, crooning ‘Ogni vento’ into a bejewelled microphone with rock-star panache, before stripping things right back for Shakespearean monologue-in-music ‘Pensieri’. Fagioli does what he does as no one else can (whether you like it or not is another matter), and Iestyn Davies provides the emotional anchor as the virtuous Ottone, his delivery as simple as Fagioli’s is fidgety and obsessively worked. Crowe has some of the best coloratura in the business, but here just lacks that sparkle and freedom of tone at the top of the voice that this practised sex kitten needs if she’s to flex her claws.

From the Roman empire to Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic for one of the final concerts of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s beautifully programmed Bittersweet Metropolis season. No visit to Weimar Germany would be complete without a trip to the cabaret, with Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the classiest house band (a reduced-forces Philharmonia), accompanying vocalists Loré Lixenberg and Dagmar Manzel.

Conceived by Gerard McBurney, the evening played out as a continuous ‘dream-like’ sequence of music, projected films and images and spoken extracts, vividly delivered by his brother Simon McBurney. The effect was kaleidoscopic, evocative, but often frustratingly evanescent. Music (from suites by Eisler, Schulhoff and Krenek among others) was often gone before it had even started, melting into a blur of sardonic, rasping jazz and fading, nostalgic Gemütlichkeit.

Lixenberg’s songs may have been the most arresting (Schulhoff’s ‘Sonata Erotica’ requires the solo performer to fake a meticulously notated orgasm before relieving herself into a bucket), but it was Manzel who held us transfixed in songs by Weill, Hollaender and Abraham — cool irony hinting at heartbreak beneath, husky sweetness balanced carefully on the edge of ugliness and despair.

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