thu 18/08/2022

Agrippina, Barbican review - over-the-top comic brilliance | reviews, news & interviews

Agrippina, Barbican review - over-the-top comic brilliance

Agrippina, Barbican review - over-the-top comic brilliance

Handel's Roman comedy gets a bit Carry On Up The Capitol

Joyce DiDonato and Andrea MastroniAll images by Richard Young

Flirtations and fragile alliances, lies, betrayals, schemes and the ever-present promise of sex – Love Island may be back on our screens next week, but it has nothing on Handel's Agrippina. Imperial Rome is the backdrop for one of the composer’s most deliciously cynical comedies, where love is an afterthought and power is the only game in town.

Agrippina is the original tiger mother, conniving to put the Imperial laurel wreath on her son Nero’s head. Kingmaker, ringmaster, seductress, éminence grise – it’s a gift of a role, and one seized with both hands by mezzo Joyce DiDonato, the raison d’être of this touring concert staging by Il Pomo d’Oro. Already seen in Madrid, Paris, Luxembourg and Barcelona, it arrives at the Barbican as a slick and seriously shiny package, albeit not perhaps quite the one originally promised.

Three of the eight cast members are late substitutes for those originally advertised (no Lemieux, Orlinski or Lewek), but there’s nothing second-string about the final line-up. DiDonato dominates, radiating star-power, but there’s plenty of counter-weight in Franco Fagioli’s grotesque Nero, Xavier Sabata’s sweetly sincere Ottone, Luca Pisaroni’s Claudio and Elsa Benoit’s minx of a Poppea (pictured below with Fagioli).

Scene from Barbican OrlandoNo director is credited for a semi-staging that does as much as it can – perhaps a little too much – behind the scaffolding of scores and music stands. DiDonato made it clear from her first entry that this political drama is to be played for laughs, and the audience responded enthusiastically. But somewhere between DiDonato ruffling conductor Maxim Emelyanychev’s hair and directing her own accompaniment with flamboyant wrist-flicks and Fagioli’s physical clowning as Nero things reach a level of camp that’s hard to come back from dramatically. In some ways it’s a brilliant trick, baiting the trap with plenty of easy laughs before sending it slamming shut with Agrippina’s shattering “Pensieri, voi mi tormentati”, but it’s one that risks distorting the humanity that Handel always finds in his subjects, however twisted and corrupted.

DiDonato is on commanding form – volleys of coloratura clean as rifle-fire, her “Pensieri” a tragic soliloquy of Shakespearean scope and weight. There’s nothing spontaneous about a performance in which every inflection and gesture has been meticulously thought and planned and honed; it’s both blessing and curse, enabling complete technical security while occasionally (“Ogni vento”) becoming over-worked.

Curtain call for Barbican AgrippinaIn Fagioli and Sabata she is flanked by two contrasting voices and personalities. There are no sharp edges on Sabata’s baroque flute of a countertenor. Soft-grained and woody it makes for an exquisite “Vaghe fonti”, duetting delightfully with the two solo recorders, Emelyanychev adding trickling springs to his inventive accompaniment. Where Sabata is creamy smooth, Fagioli’s voice has an acid kick to it, a sting that projects sharp and bright. It’s an astonishing instrument – agile and with a seemingly limitless range – but not everyone will love what he does with it. Chewing each phrase in his mouth, gurning with visible effort, he turns mummy’s boy and pawn Nero into a grotesque, pleasure-seeking panto-villain. It’s supremely entertaining, but not the subtlest of takes.

Pisaroni is an anchoring presence as Claudio, generating real heat in his lustful cavatina “Vieni o cara”, and well matched in Elsa Benoit’s schemer-in-training Poppea. There’s strong comic support and a fine handful of arias from countertenor Carlo Vistoli (Narciso) and bass Andrea Mastroni (Pallante). Il Pomo d’Oro are all zesty bite and attack under Emelyanychev’s demonstrative direction – brilliantly entertaining and just slightly over the top, like everything else about this performance.

DiDonato made it clear from her first entry that this political drama is to be played for laughs


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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