Agrippina was the opera that made Handel’s name and premiered in Venice in 1709. It led his fame to spreading across the continent and some of the music from this opera even made its way to London by 1710. The libretto is typical of its style with an heroic theme, two pairs of lovers and a plot that moves unabated from turbulence and strife to peace and resolution. The music though is exceptional and the vocal demands on the singers are very great. Every role here needs virtuoso performers and fortunately the cast in this production is very strong.
Joyce Didonato’s performance in the title role was exactly what one would expect from one of the outstanding mezzo-sopranos of her generation. Such assured coloratura singing is not something we hear often enough at the Royal Opera House. As has become increasingly common the castrati roles were sung by counter-tenors. This is not a trend to everyone’s liking but there were some superb performances here. Franco Fagioli excelled as Nerone with a naturalness and steel in his voice that is not entirely common among counter-tenors. Iestyn Davies warmed to his role as the evening progressed and was excellent as the military commander Ottone.
Lucy Crowe is cast in the most challenging part of all in singing Poppea. The role has a rather large number of difficult arias which have a tendency to follow hard on the heels of one another. They also require a wide vocal range and exquisite coloratura. She might not have had the same level of assurance in her voice as Joyce Didonato but that cannot be counted as a criticism. Gianluca Buratto is a commanding presence as the Emperor Caludio while Andrea Mastroni and Eric Jurenas take on the minor parts of Pallante and Narciso.
Agrippina had been doing the rounds around Europe through the summer this year with concert performances in Luxembourg, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London and Turku. Joyce Didonato was joined in those concerts by Franco Fagioli and Andrea Mastroni under the direction of Maxim Emelyanychev. A good number of last night’s singers were also part of the Bavarian State Opera’s performance of this same production earlier in the year. So one way or the other, this particular production has been very well rehearsed and it showed. Nevertheless, without it being clear whether the issue is with the libretto or with Barrie Kosky’s direction, the evening does drift aimlessly, though extremely well sung, from its beginning to its end. Whatever it is, the sets are minimal and the direction is at times unnecessarily distracting.
In the pit the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment showed their mastery of this repertoire. Precise and crisp and unfussy and with wonderful solo playing, the orchestra was conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev at the harpsichord. The performances on the stage are first rate but this isn’t a production that sets the heart thumping.