Spectacular Production of Handel’s Agrippina

Handel: Agrippina, Liceu’s orchestra, Harry Bicket (conductor), Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 18.11.2013 (JMI)

Agrippina: Sarah Connolly
Poppea: Danielle de Niese
Nerone: Malena Ernman
Ottone: David Daniels
Claudio: Franz-Josef Selig
Pallante: Henry Waddington
Narciso: Dominique Visse
Lesbo: Enric Martínez-Castignani

Coproduction: Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie and Théâtre des Champs Elysées
Direction: David McVicar
Sets and Costumes: John Macfarlane
Lighting: Paule Constable

The big boom in Baroque opera over the past 30 years has meant that some real gems have been rediscovered. It is more and more usual to see them regularly programmed by opera houses, and this has happened with Handel’s operas, among them Agrippina. I had the opportunity to see this opera at least once during the past 4 years, and it has now come to Barcelona for the first time, just a little over 300 years late.

I have referred previously to Vincenzo Grimani’s excellent libretto for this opera. He was an exceptional writer and here his text is marked by an outstanding freshness. Whether the action takes place in Imperial Rome or is set in the present is irrelevant: the ambitions of the political class have hardly changed. In my opinion this opera is a real gold mine for an intelligent and imaginative director.

David McVicar’s production had its premiere in 1999, and it is a splendid work. He sets the action in modern times, and his imagination combines with an absolute respect for music and text. The struggle for power and the intrigues of the characters are perfectly reflected on stage in a modern, satirical atmosphere that is faithful to Grimani’s libretto. Here we have more than a director offering his vision of the opera: rather, an artist narrates the story in a most brilliant way.

The sets are very attractive and well-suited to scene changes. The second act, set in a cocktail bar, is breath-taking. Costumes are the most attractive for the two main protagonists of the opera (Agrippina and Poppea), and colorful and fun in other cases. McVicar’s staging is spectacular, starting with the movement of extras, while his direction of the actors is more than excellent. It is true that McVicar had some true stage animals in this cast, but that does not diminish the job that he did. I thought McVicar’s production of Alcina was a real find, but this Agrippina is on a par with it.

Harry Bicket returned to the Liceu after Lucio Silla last spring. There is no doubt that he is an important conductor who finds his best field in Baroque music. His reading has always been controlled, clean and very effective, but he lacks that extra touch that would make him exceptional. I would say that Bicket’s reading is more along the lines of Alan Curtis than of René Jacobs, whose version was used. The orchestra seemed better than usual under his baton. I should also mention the job done by Jory Vinikour at the keyboard.

Sarah Connolly was an excellent Agrippina. Her voice is warm, well handled and agile, but her high notes are more tight than what one would wish. She was remarkable, but I still remember Ann Hallenberg’s Agrippina in Madrid.

I have to start by saying that Danielle De Niese’s identification with Poppea  is spectacular. To this one can add that she is always the focus of attention when she is on stage. Vocally, however, she is not at the same height, especially considering that her timbre is not the strongest and even less so at the top.

Almost the same can be said of Swedish mezzo soprano Malena Ernman as Nero. McVicar drew a terrific performance from her as a whimsical and carefree teenager. Her voice is attractive, and she performed better than I expected in that devilish aria, Come nube che fugge dalvento.

Countertenor David Daniels was a well-suited interpreter of Ottone, although he is not at his peak. His performance was really good, but he did not reach the level attained by Mehta Bejun not long ago in the same role.

Bass Franz-Josef Selig was a good interpreter of  Emperor Claudius. His voice has enough nobility and only lacks a little more agility. It is not easy to combine Wagner with  Baroque roles, but he does it better than many others.

The secondary characters were well served: Henry Waddington as Pallante, Dominique Visse as a buffo Narciso and, finally, baritone Enric Martínez- Castigani as Lesbo.

The Liceu was at about 85 % of its capacity. The audience was a bit cool during the performance with desertions at the interval. The biggest cheers were for Danielle Niese and Malena Ernman.

José Mª. Irurzun

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