BWW Review: AGRIPPINA, Royal Opera House
Agrippina wants her son, Nerone, to be Emperor - as does he, but he wants Poppea too. The current Emperor, Claudio, doesn't want to be Emperor, but he also wants Poppea. Ottone, to whom Claudio has promised the crown, doesn't want to be Emperor but - you're there before me - he wants Poppea too.
"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." Wise words from Cersei Lannister (who has plenty of Agrippina in her) but, as Rome's ruthless matriarch finds out, even victories can be pyrrhic.
Director, Barrie Kosky, mixes his tone through the evening. Lucy Crowe goes full-on Stevie Nicks - appropriately, I suppose - to sing about how love can turn to rage and there's a scene straight out Carry On Claudio, Poppea juggling her three suitors as she prepares her trap for Agrippina.
The shifts in tone are not helped by a dizzying set from Rebecca Ringst, a Rubik's Cube of steel girders and blinds that transforms (by means of whirring motors) into all kinds of spaces, without ever losing the suggestion that Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to pitch up and recreate the closing scene of Terminator II.
So far, so distracting, but the libretto (attributed to Vincenzo Grimani) is excellent, its political manoeuvring familiar to anyone who has read Robert Graves' I Claudius. So too Handel's music, beautifully played by The Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment - rather a pretentious name for musicians whose work was often nicely understated - led by conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.
The singing is what really makes the evening. As Agrippina, Joyce DiDonato's razor sharp soprano leads, but Lucy Crowe has to do a lot of heavy lifting, which she does with great energy - and a lot of breath - as she dashes about the stage, still singing, cleavage heaving.
I'm a sucker for a countertenor and there are plenty on stage, so the delights keep coming. Literally so in the case of Franco Fagioli, whose Keith Flint inspired Nerone joins us for a bit of fire starting in the stalls at one point and, no doubt, eyes the violinists for a few tips from time to time.
But the best voice in this very strong cast belongs to Iestyn Davies, who may look like he's about to read the news on BBC Wales, but whose glorious countertenor dips and soars with his emotions, as he is beaten and bloodied, but never broken, winning back his Poppea and flinging the crown at Nerone. (How did that decision turn out I wonder?)
As a once empire is discovering yet again. transitions in political leadership are never easy and, though she gets what she wants - to die happy - Agrippina might not have wanted that happiness to arrive quite as soon as it did.
Photo Bill Cooper.