Georg Frideric Handel
The Royal Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Dutch National Opera, Hamburg State Opera and Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia
Royal Opera House

Agrippina Credit: Bill Cooper
Gianluca Buratto as Claudio Lucy Crowe as Poppea Credit: Bill Cooper
Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina and Franco Fagioli as Nerone Credit: Bill Cooper

Barry Kosky’s excellent Agrippina is a darkly comic exploration of humanity in an opera Handel wrote aged just 24.

Kosky is hot property right now. This summer, along with his Agrippina at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, there was a Salzburg Orphée, and in London, his minimalist Carmen also aired to much acclaim.

To top it off, Kosky is working with a stellar cast: Joyce Didonato has top billing alongside Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Franco Fagioli, all popular performers on the ROH stage.

Sometimes, directors get around the repetitive nature of Handel operas with tricks and gimmicks which have little relation to the plot, simply providing lighthearted spectacle. Not so here. Kosky’s coarse characters are larger than life and it is in exploring their personal dramas and exaggerated desires that he grips our attention. This Agrippina excels in finding hidden pockets of silliness, which are juxtaposed with real moments of tenderness and pathos.

The drama plays out on a ginormous, two-storey, glinting chrome cube, which splits and revolves to reveal staircases and multiple rooms. It’s a great playground for the action, but unfortunately the movement of the set is too audible and the staircase is climbed far too often.

Agrippina (Joyce Didinato) rules the roost—she seduces everyone around her with a sensual combination of arch control and artifice. This is a story full of amorous advances and political plotting, alternately hilarious and unsettling.

Agrippina’s plans are eventually rumbled, but in the meantime everyone is bent to her will. Agrippina’s unstoppable force as a character is matched by Didinato’s exceptional vocal command: giant intervallic leaps are handled with ease and precision alongside rapid, crystal clear coloratura.

Agrippina is a long opera. Over three hours of music-making means there are a lot of arias (I counted nine for Poppea), but the cast are more than up to the task.

In the pit, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays with sensuous clarity. Alongside the orchestra’s outstanding music-making, we hear from a cast who match them in their experimentation, playing with text and colouration. Lucy Crowe (Poppea) and Joyce Didinato are the masters here, but occasionally Crowe’s vocal production suffers in the process.

The first few of Poppea's arias display Crowe’s fine voice and her innate ability to shape and spin Handel’s vocal lines, but it is not until her fourth aria that we really appreciate this performer's scintillating coloratura. Here she pairs her incredible vocal agility in a fiendishly fast aria with kicks, spins and hair flicks.

Agrippina provides a plethora of counter-tenors. All are excellent, but it is Iestyn Davies as Ottone who really stands out. Davies’s creamy, otherworldly tone is employed to maximum effect. Most striking is his closing aria of the first half, "Voi che udite" ("You who hear”). Bloodstained from a beating, he performs with ravishing, bittersweet tenderness, giving me goosebumps.

Kosky directs an evening of excitement and humour, but overshadowing all of this is the breathtaking music-making. It will be some time before you hear another cast and orchestra who deliver with this much precision, power and daring.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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