Handel’s Agrippina was telecast throughout the world yesterday. Written in 1709 it now holds the record as the oldest opera to be performed by the Met. Though an opera seria, it is more like an opera buffa. It lampoons the politics surrounding the Emperor Claudius. Agrippina was his fourth and final wife. She murdered him, along with a number of other family members. Her goal was to make her son, Nero, emperor in Claudius’s place. She succeed. But then genes will out and Nero murdered her as well as his wife Poppea. But these killings are not part of Handel’s satirical musical.
David McVicar’s production is set in the present – more or less. He emphasizes the more antic part of the story, mostly playing for laughs. He seems to have taken the current Democratic presidential debates as his inspiration. But as the production antedates these debates they are another example of life imitating art. John MacFarlane’s sets are columns, empty spaces, and a set of 25 yellow stairs ascending to a yellow throne. They get the job done without holding up the action or getting in the way. His costumes are conventional except for the US military uniforms that are worn by the characters who hold Roman office. Claudius wears one that has both a master sergeant’s chevrons and full general’s four stars. Macfarlane was either being purposefully goofy or was militarily misled. It doesn’t really matter.
Agrippina is a baroque opera, Handel’s first success, and his first masterpiece. If an opera consisting of more than 45 da capo arias interspersed with recitatives without any ensembles is to your taste this one should be a go. Some of the arias are very good, others less so tending to the formulaic. The performers were all up to the directorial demands of McVicars and the musical ones of the composer.
The best performance was that of mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey who seems to have a corner on the Met’s trouser roles. She portrayed Nerone (Nero) as James Dean portraying Nero. She was tattooed and so addled that she seemed to have fallen out of a screening of Rebel Without a Cause. She also sang beautifully while doing one handed pushups and assuming postures that I couldn’t achieve even if under stage 4 anesthesia. A tour de force.
Joyce DiDonato handled Handel’s empress with assurance, though her voice is not quite as supple or luscious as when she was on the sunny side of 50. Alas, Father Time remains untied and unbeaten. Still she gave a convincing rendition of “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” the opera best and most dramatic aria.
According to my cursory reading of the score Poppea has 9 arias. Soprano Brenda Rae mellifluously reeled them off like she were casting for trout while still looking sexy. She’s the opera’s love interest.
Handel wrote Nerone for a castrato. As per above the Met went for a mezzo. Narciso was also meant for a castrato. He was played by Nicholas Tamagna a counter tenor. When the Met does Handel they have to have at least two countertenors, so Ottone written for a contralto was assigned to countertenor Iestyn Davies. I won’t say anything about their singing as I’m constitutionally unable to decipher countertenors.
Bass Matthew Rose was suitably magisterial as the golf loving Roman Emperor. This was, of course, McVicars invention. Christian Zaremba and Duncan Rock were solid as Lesbo and Pallante, respectively.
Harry Bicket has made his bones as a conductor of baroque opera. When you want to do Handel he’s the go to guy. He got a very solid and sensitive performance from the Met’s fabulous orchestra. They sounded a lot bigger than what one expects from a baroque band and yet they did not overpower the singers. Bicket has branched out to more conventional opera. He’s now the music director of the Santa Fe Opera. He’s probably ready for just about anything. A fine musician.
Gary Halvorson’s video direction was restrained, at least by the up the singer’s nose standards that typically prevail during these telecasts. If baroque opera is your thing and you just love the thought of listening to a battalion of da capo arias for three hours, this bladderbuster is for you.
February 29, 2020
George Frideric Handel/Vincenzo Grimani
Harpsichord: Harry Bicket
Cello: David Heiss
Theorbo/Archlute/Guitar: Daniel Swenberg, John Lenti,
Harpsichord Ripieno and onstage solo: Bradley Brookshire
Lighting Designer…….Paule Constable
Video Director……….Gary Halvorson