REVIEW: Agrippina @ Royal Opera House

September 27, 2019


Royal Opera House

Covent Garden

Co-production with Bavarian State Opera, Munich, and Dutch National Opera

Directory Barry Kosky’s minimalist rather darkly funny but thrilling  Agrippina gives us a candid insight into humanity, power and the games people play to get what they think they really want. Agrippina is the ultimate political operator – outrageous and blatant in her pursuit of power. In the title role, Joyce DiDonato heads a specialist cast in Handel’s early operatic success, a calling card when he moved to London.

This early opera from Handel, he wrote it at 24 in Venice follows the machinations, manipulations, seductions and awful plotting of Agrippina as she attempts to secure her son as the next Emperor of Rome.   The score boasts a succession of brilliant Baroque jewels – one after another come the bright, sparkling arias.

Read the full synopsis here:

Joyce Didinato’s Agrippina is superb, a tiger mom with sass, as ruthless as she is beguiling a sensual snake with a sharp seductive tongue this updated presentation of Agrippina as a knowing,  kingmaker is a subtle embrace of the agency of this triumphant female character.  Her voice is equally powerful, in complete control, with humour and balance and some stand out moments of exquisite coloratura.

Conducted with real verve by Russian Maxim Emelyanychev The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are on top form, playing with a luxurious beauty which underscores the emotional action onstage and unfolds the delicious harmonic textures of this beautiful music with clarity, honesty and a passion which makes this rather long opera skip along at a brisk pace.  This is Handel at its very best and the combination of playing and singing is superb and worth putting up with the distracting and rather dull set for, but although the music and singing thrills it’s oddly unconvincing as whole. There’s a cynical hollowness at the centre of this piece which perhaps reflects the heartless power hunger of the main protagonist.

Rebecca Ringst’s set was endless in motion, but with no real reason, metal boxes, bright light and noisy automatic blinds, it allowed for some backgrounding and was in perpetual movement, distractingly loud on occasion I found myself wondering about rubber wheels and electric motors in a most distracting way.  It projected a harsh world of corporate power, callous, designer, and empty of conviction, just ambition. This is also a problem with the production when the sophisticated irony which carries this narrative so well is reduced to farce or sexgames and underplays the serious nature of the plot with a silly frivolousness.  Kosky’s style plays well with audiences but I felt it reflected not so well on such a fine musical production of this Handel jewel.

DiDonato gives a stand out performance, the best I’ve ever heard from her, capturing astonishing bravado in her performance and having as much fun as possible, even rocking it up a touch with microphone and Jaggerseque moves celebrating her triumphs.  Her ruthless callous advancing of Nero to the throne is played with a narrative thrust which seduces and shocks, a convincing performance on so many levels.

Iestyn Davies as Ottone is breath-taking, his closing aria of the first act Voi che udite  “You who hear” follows a wretched betrayal and usurping of fortune after being jumped on by his erstwhile allies. Dripping with blood and confusion he sings with a heart-breaking virtue. I was transported, Davies, one of a few superb counter tenors in this production was astonishingly good.  Franco Fagioli gives a trembling, tattooed, quixotic early Nero, entitled, deluded and imprinted on his mother still, his voice covering all these straining emotions with the hint of psychosis underneath, he chilled & thrilled with perfection.  When he’s down in the audience scheming for his ambitions and apparently sharing grief it’s a seriously funny moment.

Gianluca Buratto’s Claudio is a callous vain sex manic, his singing profound and touching and filled with emotional conviction and longing but played for laughs too often. The pair jousting and jousting for Agrippina’s loving attention – toxic butch muscle boy Andrea Mastroni’s Pallante and emotionally crippled  Narciso from Eric Jurenas bounce off each other and combine voice sensually but their acting is camp and distracting, like pair of hyperactive spaniels desperate for a treat they leap and cavort across the stage.  Lucy Crowe’s Poppea never stops, flirting, flushing, laughing and sharply refining her power quietly under the cover of her beauty, she’s a joy to watch savouring the thrill of seduction and her voice echoing this sensual effervescence.

Kosky’s  still and crepuscular ending is a ravishingly slow movement from L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato  giving us an unsettling ending, Agrippina seems calm, all shuts down around her, but there’s no resolution to the passions and schisms unleashed on stage, just an disconcerting waiting for what ever happens next.

This Agrippina is not perfect but it is quite lovey. Worth checking out.

Until 11 October 2019

For more info see performance dates or to book tickets see the ROH website here:

All photo’s credit: ROH 2019 photographed by Bill Cooper.