Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Agrippina / Zurich Opera @ Royal Festival Hall, London

17 May 2009

Zurich Opera and Marc Minkowski make for an explosive combination, and with a group of top-flight soloists this ‘Agrippina’ could not fail.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

If you were one of the many who were laid out in the aisles by Zurich Opera’s ‘Il Ritorno di Ulisse’ some years ago, you would have gone to last night’s ‘Agrippina’ with the expectation of an exciting and unusual afternoon.

For the most part you would not have been disappointed. Marc Minkowski directed a cracking performance by the Orchestra la Scintilla, and there was some festival-standard singing on show.

The piece was presented as a comedy of manners, the imperial shenanigans reduced to soap opera dimensions. Surprisingly this worked very well as a concert performance, and it was dominated by Vesselina Kasarova’s Empress, as terrifying in her grimaces as her fearless coloratura ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’ might have only just been this side of overly histrionic in presentation, but the singing lifted your head off. Anna Bonitatibus was an equally undaunted Nerone she sings eloquently, although without much colour in the tone, and ‘Come nube fugge dal vento’ was gripping in spite of Minkowski’s terrifying tempi.

Eva Liebau’s ‘Vaghe perle’ was a little hesitant, but her Poppea grew in confidence as the evening progressed, and she produced some pearly tone in her exchanges with Claudio and Agrippina. Lszl Polgr’s veteran Emperor was predictably sonorous as well as absurdly pompous, his low C as satisfying as his come-uppance as a would-be lover. His years of experience were contrasted with the youth of two singers new to me, Ruben Drole as a comically adroit Pallante, and Jos Lemos as a convincing Narciso his ‘Volo pronte, e lieti il core’ was beautifully sung.

Marijana Mijanovic is a fascinating artist whose Penelope is one of those ‘once heard, never forgotten’ experiences, but on this occasion she was a little below her best, the voice at times insecure: nevertheless this was a sympathetic Ottone, with ‘Vaghe, fonti’ displaying this singer’s characteristic sensitivity and eloquence.

Gabriel Bermdez was a warm-toned Lesbo, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a joyful Giunone, resplendent in a lily-festooned jacket; dress onstage was incidentally fascinating, with Nerone and Agrippina attired in what looked like Prada and Valentino respectively, and Poppea and Ottone in what might best be termed classy Halloween party wear.

With playing from the likes of Toshinori Ozaki’s Therbo, Claudius Herrmann’s ‘cello and Yann Miriel’s oboe on the same high-octane level as the singing, this was an afternoon of Handelian fireworks which set the South Bank alight.

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Agrippina / Zurich Opera @ Royal Festival Hall, London