Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Agrippina @ Barbican Hall, London

31 May 2019

Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato
(Photo: Richard Young)

The fact that Il Pomo d’Oro, directed from the harpsichord by Maxim Emelyanychev, presented a perfect staging of Agrippina would have been impressive enough, but in this instance the feat was all the more remarkable since the evening was not actually staged at all. The level of acting shown in this concert performance was so high that it was impossible not to marvel at the results. We are still looking forward to Barrie Kosky’s production at the Royal Opera House in September, featuring Emelyanychev and several of the same soloists, but it is hard to picture any presentation feeling any more vital and immediate than the one witnessed here.

Strong acting walked hand in hand with excellent singing as the cast was led by Joyce DiDonato in the title role. Her voice, while maintaining all of the brilliance we have come to expect from her, felt particularly rich and vibrant on this occasion, tying in perfectly with her character of the domineering mother. Glasses became a weapon as she only had to put them on to assert authority, while her whole performance became a statement of the Queen’s power as in ‘Ogni vento ch’al porto lo spinga’ she clapped, conducted and flirted with Emelyanychev. Nevertheless, for all of her apparent ruthlessness, her expressions at the end made it hard for us to see her as anything other than a mother who simply wanted the best for her son.

Franco Fagioli was a brilliant Nerone, with his ability to make his sound flow so beautifully through the most technically challenging phrases in ‘Come nube che fugge dal vento’ proving exceptional. His facial expressions were also priceless, conveying a man who wanted to be all powerful, and yet who enjoyed being a ‘mummy’s boy’ as the means to get him what he wanted to such a point that he looked nervous whenever he could not feel Agrippina’s protection. There was a certain campness to his portrayal that made it hard not to give an extra smile when he claimed that he was punished twice when he was deprived of the empire and given a wife!       

As Ottone, Xavier Sabata (replacing a previously advertised Marie-Nicole Lemieux) had a beautiful countertenor. Elsa Benoit (replacing Kathryn Lewek) produced a radiant sound as Poppea, while, as Claudio, Luca Pisaroni’s bass-baritone was absolutely magisterial. Andrea Mastroni asserted a firm bass as Pallante, Carlo Vistoli (replacing Jakub Jósef Orlinski) glided ethereally through his top lines as Narciso while Biagio Pizzuti provided strong support as Lesbo.

As a rule, singers exited the stage when not needed for long periods, and sat at the sides for short absences. However, such decisions were also dictated by dramatic considerations. For example, Lesbo sat at the side during Claudio’s encounter with Poppea as he was keeping guard, while Agrippina entered the hall at that moment when she is required to be hidden before meeting Poppea. There were also other nice touches so that both Agrippina and Nerone on occasions responded to hearing the solo oboe as if it signified hostile forces closing in on them.

The playing was of an extremely high standard, and really helped to maintain the flow of the evening so that the opera felt less like a set of separate recitatives and arias and more like a continuous piece of drama. Any pauses at all were rare at the start, although as the evening wore on more had to be inserted to allow for the rapturous applause that, given what had just been produced, inevitably followed so many of the numbers.

For details of all of Il Pomo d’Oro’s recordings and upcoming events visit the designated website.

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