***** (5 Stars)
Agrippina was first performed in 1709, but the plot is still relevant today. The Roman empress Agrippina, wife of Claudio, wants her son Nerone to be made heir to the imperial throne, and is prepared to use any means to ensure this. Claudio, however, favours his general, Ottone, who is in love with Poppaea – who is also pursued by Nerone and Claudio. Agrippina, hearing that Claudio has died in a shipwreck, leaps into action. Lying right left and centre, she promises her sexual favours to her two freedmen, Pallente and Narciso, if they will assist her. Just as it appears that her machinations will succeed she learns that Claudio is not dead: she simply regroups, and starts blackening everyone’s characters to everyone else. People start to see through her plots, and everything begins to unravel around her – but just as it seems that she is about to receive her comeuppance, she wriggles out of everything and manages to achieve her dearest wish – her son Nerone is confirmed by Claudio as his heir. Familiar, or what???
The cast are superb. Joyce di Donato is the scheming empress, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies the lovelorn Ottone, and soprano Brenda Rae the fiery, intelligently scheming Poppaea. Mezzo Kate Lindsey plays the twitching, unpredictable, self-obsessed brat Nerone, while Matthew Rose as Claudio is at times a powerfully majestic emperor, at times a suspiciously Trump-like fool. Duncan Rock and Nicholas Tamagna make a beautifully-contrasted and gullible pair of lapdogs for Agrippina.
Aprippina’s theme song could well be I will survive – though her drive to succeed centres round her son, to whose disturbingly volatile nastiness she is totally oblivious. Joyce di Donato is more usually seen as a melancholy heroine or a steely queen: here she is allowed to give full rein to her brilliant comic powers as she manipulates everyone around her and makes it clear to us, but not to her victims, how she despises them. Only when she is alone in act two does her underlying fear of the consequences of her evil deeds appear – but it is quickly beaten into submission, and she sweeps onwards in her obsessive quest. Even when defeat stares her in the face, she can twist everything round and convince Claudio that everything she has done was to keep the throne secure for him. Yet again she triumphs: her son is proclaimed heir to the imperial throne – but during the final triumphant chorus she fails to see Nerone standing behind her with his hands reaching out for her neck…
If Agrippina’s tale is one of a lust for power that she wants for her son, Ottone’s is one of a desire for power that is easily relinquished to achieve his overwhelming need to be with the woman he loves. He saves Claudio’s life in the shipwreck, and the grateful emperor names him his heir: he is overjoyed – but power is meaningless without the woman he loves by his side. When Agrippina’s lies turn everyone against him, he is desolate – but because he has lost his love, not the promised power. When Poppaea demonstrates her fidelity, cleverly evading the advances of both Claudio and Nerone, he is overjoyed: and when Claudio, finally realising Ottone’s honesty and Agrippina’s duplicity, decrees that Nerone shall marry Poppaea and Ottone succeed to the throne, he has the courage to speak out, refuse the offered power, and ask instead for Poppaea.
All the other characters are driven by desire – Nerone wants power, but he also wants Poppaea; Claudio is also pursuing Poppaea; she, believing Agrippina’s lies, wants vengeance; Pallante and Narciso desire Agrippina and blindly involve themselves in her plots. They rejoice in others’ misfortune – most tellingly when Ottone is accused of treason: one by one they show their contempt and leave him alone in his misery, the social outcast whom it’s disaster to be seen to support.
The contemporary setting chosen by David McVicar for this production starkly reveals the immediacy of the situation and the choices facing the characters. A giant golden staircase leading to the imperial throne dominates the stage, while massive pillars display the might and power of the emperor, and provide dark shadows in which the conspirators can hide. Only once does the desire to play up the humour potentially overwhelm the characters’ emotions – in the bar scene that opens the second half, with an outstanding on-stage virtuoso performance from harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire. Poppaea’s hung-over antics rather make light of the depth of Ottone’s real misery – but at the same time one has to admire her impeccable comic timing, along with the antics of all the characters surrounding her in the bar. Nerone’s frenzied coke-snorting outburst furiously promising vengeance on Poppaea for her rejection of him was another outstanding performance, again chillingly hinting at her ultimate fate.
It’s astounding to realise that this was the Met’s premiere of Agrippina, and Joyce di Donato’s first Handel role at the Met. Handel was only twenty-four when he wrote this opera, but his understanding of character and motivation and how to display this musically was already outstanding. His ability to pace the drama and provide moments of heart-stopping pathos and genuine depth of feeling amongst the outbursts of passion and cold-blooded machinations is extraordinary when you consider how new opera was as an art form. Agrippina and Poppaea have a seemingly unending succession of bravura displays of passion, drive, and anger; Claudio and Nerone each have superb opportunities to reveal their inner desires; Pallente and Narciso each display their willingness to be led by the nose and believe Agrippina’s promises.
In the middle of all this stands Ottone, whose despairing lament soars out into the blackness that slowly encloses him when he believes himself abandoned by Poppaea, and whose delight in her proven faithfulness leads to the only duet in the whole piece as the two declare their mutual love and trust. The third deeply heartfelt piece comes, surprisingly, from Agrippina: all her plots have been unmasked, and shown Claudio the lengths to which she was prepared to go to get her son on the throne. He sits dejectedly and she sings a tender aria urging him to let go of his anger – if you want peace, my love, let go of your hate: if only she could have listened to her own advice…
A stellar cast gave a timeless and spine-chillingly accurate depiction of the lengths to which people are prepared to go in pursuit of power while Harry Bicket and the Met orchestra gave a masterclass in baroque playing and ornamentation. At the final curtain it seemed as though the entire stalls audience were on their feet – a fitting tribute to one of the most enjoyable and satisfying Met relays I’ve seen in a long time.
Handel Agrippina, Metropolitan Opera relay, RUN ENDED