Agrippina: In Which I Brave Baroque Opera Seria
|Evil, evil people. Photo @ Marty Sohl|
Four hours later, baroque opera seria is still decidedly not my thing. But I am glad I got to experience Handel's satirical opera with a shockingly modern libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. Especially because the afternoon also contained some wonderful performances and an amusing production by Sir David McVicar. Grimani's libretto has no likable characters -- everyone is treated with the contempt they deserve. They scheme, they bumble, they sleep around, and at the end of the opera it's clear that the New Leader is no better than the Old Leader. Since this performance was being beamed across the world in HD all the performers seemed to be giving their all.
|McVicar's Rome, photo @ Marty Sohl|
McVicar does his best in livening up a very static format -- just to be clear, it's four hours of nothing but A-B-A da capo arias. There's very few ensembles or duets to mix things up. In his vision of Agrippina everyone is boozed up, coked up, oversexed, and downright stupid. The production has many sight gags that had the audience laughing throughout the afternoon -- dancing generals, bouquets of flowers that are tossed aside like trash, characters who bump, grind, and twerk. Nerone (Kate Lindsey) is a coked up punk rock star -- Lindsey sings her big aria "Come nube" while furiously snorting lines of coke. The love quadrangle between Claudio/Nerone/Ottone/Poppea is portrayed with broad sitcom strokes. In the second act while Poppea and Ottone are drinking their sorrows away Bradley Brookshire played an onstage harpsichord that doubled as a piano would at a bar/lounge. Purists might object but I found the production engaging and fun.
|DiDonato boozing it up, photo @ Marty Sohl|
But DiDonato is a baroque expert and know how to sing all those micro-notes AND how to wring the maximum drama from her arias. Handel wrote a huge emotional range for Agrippina's arias -- she can be charming (in "Tu ben degno"), she can be evil ("Ogni vento ch'al porto lo spinga") and she even has a moment of self-awareness ("Pensieri, voi mi tormente"). DiDonato tended to emphasize the hard, aggressive side of Agrippina's personality -- she drove her voice with brute force at times. I would have liked to hear a lighter touch in some of the arias. But it was a dominating performance. DiDonato appeared to be having fun with the stage business of the production. This is one of the best things I've seen DiDonato do.
|Lindsey as Nerone, photo @ Marty Sohl|
|Brenda Rae as Poppea, photo @ Marty Sohl|
|Davies and Rae, photo @ Marty Sohl|
The two most amusing characters onstage were the pair of foolish Roman generals Palante (Duncan Rock) and Narciso (Nicholas Tamagna). They were besotted with Agrippina, and whenever they were onstage the audience laughed. Not just because of McVicar's stage production but because the libretto is so strong in portraying these two knuckleheads. Both Rock and Tamagna were vocally very strong.
|Teeing as Rome burns, photo @ Marty Sohl|
I'm also not enough of a baroque expert to comment on Harry Bicket's conducting. I will say that the Met orchestra sounded almost as "period" as John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique did performing the Beethoven symphony cycle at Carnegie Hall and that's no mean feat. (By the way JEG's Symphony No. 9 featured Matthew Rose as bass and he sounded wonderful there as well. And the performance earned a 10 minute standing ovation. Beethoven rules. But that's neither here nor there.)
So at the end of the four hours I was still alive. The afternoon of baroque opera seria was amusing, funny, and very very long. It won't ever be my thing, but at least I (sort of) conquered this particular phobia.
I also met up with some internet friends. I am totally not showing this pic off because I like my color coordination: