BWW Review: Forget 'Games of Thrones,' DiDonato's Got a Grip on AGRIPPINA in Barcelona, and Heading to the Met and Covent Garden
For those of us who couldn't wait to hear mezzo Joyce DiDonato (JDD) in a fully staged performance of Handel's AGRIPPINA--heading to Covent Garden in September and the Met next February in different productions next season--she has given us a first-class preview. For a couple of weeks at the end of May, she tootled around major cities in Europe giving concert performances of the opera, one of Handel's first hits, from Christmas 1709 in Venice when he was finishing his sojourn in Italy.
I caught up with her at Barcelona's grand Liceu opera--a breathtaking place to see a work like this--where JDD gave a confident, powerhouse performance with her ensemble de choix these days, Il Pomo d'Oro, headed by conductor Maxim Emelyanychev (who's also conducting her Covent Garden stint).
What's taken so long for Handel's AGRIPPINA to get a grip on modern audiences? It's a puzzlement: Anyone who's watched "Game of Thrones," "Dallas" or, for that matter, the Kander & Ebb/Fosse musical CHICAGO, would find some of the machinations pretty familiar, featuring, to quote CHICAGO, "...greed, corruption, treachery, exploitation, violence and adultery. All those things we hold near and dear to our heart."
JDD has been doing one of the opera's great showpieces, "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate," sometimes known as Agrippina's rage aria, for quite a while. It was a centerpiece of her "In War and Peace" recital tour and album and a roof raiser if there ever was one. Still that excerpt was only (barely) enough to wet our whistles.
At the performance in Barcelona, she was, in a word, spectacular, immediately taking hold of the stage and never letting go, always remembered even when she disappeared for a while in Act III. The (seeming) ease at which she carried off the vocal aspects of the role--from legato during which she hardly seems to breath to tempestuous coloratura that rocked the rafters--gave her the chance to find every bit of humor/drama/conniving that the role calls for.
Of course, she didn't act as if it were a one-woman show, but brought her colleagues along for the ride, giving several an opportunity for the exposure they could only dream of. Yet, she was a hard act to follow: There are not many performers who can have the audience in their hands by the mere swivel of the wrist or by taking off her glasses, let alone the nuances of her voice. JDD can--and does it all.
Though I find it somewhat difficult to think of comedy and politics as coexisting peacefully--considering the travesty in Washington these days--Handel's librettist, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimaldi, managed to conjure a story that keeps your jaw dropping while marveling at the music, one of Handel's first great hits.
The gist of the story? Agrippina (JDD), wife of the emperor Claudio, hears that her husband (baritone Luca Pisaroni) has been killed in a shipwreck on his way home from war. As the opera puts it, "She who is the most resourceful deserves the power," and that's just what she has in mind. Agrippina decides the best way to be in charge is by installing her ninny of a son from a previous marriage, Nerone (the opera's countertenor #1, the deft Franco Fagioli of impressive rapid-fire coloratura), on the throne, where he will need her help.
But--surprise!--Claudio survives his travails, thanks to the help of Ottone (the outstanding countertenor #2, a lyrical, showstopping Xavier Sabata), who he designates as his heir, much to Agrippina's dismay. Unbeknownst to either Claudio or Ottone, they both have their eye on Poppea (Nerone does too, for that matter), sung in a lively style but not quite seductively by soprano Elsa Benoit, which adds complications that Agrippina uses to her advantage.
Add a few hangers on: the oily Frick and Frack of bass Andrea Mastroni as Pallante (the flexible bass Andrea Mastroni) and countertenor #3, Carlo Vistoli as Narciso, and the tricky bass Biagio Pizzuti as Lesbo, Claudio's manservant and, voila!, you have major hijinks in high places in Rome. But everyone lives (kind of) happily ever after--even when Agrippina gets caught in her own lies, she manages to talk her way out in her final, mea-culpa aria "Se vuoi pace."
(The opera might seem somewhat familiar to operagoers, covering some of the same ground as Monteverdi's IL CORONAZIONE DI POPPEA--except Agrippina is nowhere to be found in that one, which predated the Handel by about 65 years.)
Emelyanychev did a fine job of keeping things moving, though some of his theatrical excesses reminded me of Leonard Bernstein at his most over-the-top. The instrumental ensemble, however, was first-rate, with particular kudos to the cello of Ludovico Minasi and oboist Roberto de Franceschi.
It's always interesting to see a concert performance, where the emphasis lies mainly on the music, before seeing one of the staged versions coming later in the season. Then, the director's intentions often gain as much importance as the composer's vision. It will be interesting to see what a director can do to gild this lily called AGRIPPINA.