An Uneven Concert Version of Handel’s Agrippina at the Teatro Real

SpainSpain Handel, Agrippina (concert version): Il Pomo d’Oro/Maxim Emelyanychev (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 16.5.2019. (JMI)

From Agrippina © J. del Real
From Agrippina © J. del Real

Agrippina – Joyce DiDonato
Nerone – Franco Fagioli
Poppea – Elsa Benoit
Ottone – Xavier Sabata
Claudio – Renato Dolcini
Pallante – Andrea Mastroni
Narciso – Carlo Vistoli
Lesbo – Biagio Pizzutti

This is the third time in the past ten years that Handel’s Agrippina has been performed in Madrid, and it has always been done in a concert version, which doesn’t seem right to me. In the first place, it’s an opera with a plot and a libretto that call for full staging. Secondly, there are a number of productions available for this opera – David McVicar’s for one, which was staged six years ago at Barcelona’s Liceu.

The second opera that Handel premiered during his stay in Italy, it is based on the story of Agrippina, the wife of Emperor Claudius and mother of Nero, and her intrigues to ensure that Nero will get the crown of the Roman Empire. The libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani is one of the best in the history of opera, full of irony, humor and double meanings. Handel composed music that is very suited to this semi-serious opera, and borrowed – as was common at the time – passages from other operas and oratorios of the period.

The group Il Pomo d’Oro, which specializes in Baroque music, was led by Maxim Emelyanychev, who conducted from the harpsichord. The musical version was quite complete, and it was generally good but fell below my expectations, taking into account previous experiences with the orchestra and conductor.

The main attraction of this Agrippina was the vocal cast that had been announced, but there were several cancellations. Regardless of the vocal quality of the individual performers, the biggest problem here was the cast: an opera like this one doesn’t work well with singers whose heads are almost always buried in the score. It becomes very difficult to convey emotion, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there was a good amount of boredom during the concert.

Agrippina was interpreted by Joyce DiDonato, who faced two problems. On the one hand, she had to express all the grace and irony that Handel and Grimani put into this work; on the other hand, she had to make us forget the great interpretations of mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, who was Agrippina on the two previous occasions in Madrid. DiDonato did not manage to be fully convincing: one cannot sing this part with her head in the score and donning glasses to read it. Vocally, she was very good but clearly below the level of Ann Hallenberg. It would be interesting to hear Joyce DiDonato once she has sung the role in a few more concerts.

The first cancellation came from Kathryn Lewek, who was supposed to sing the part of Poppea. She was replaced by soprano Elsa Benoit, who gave a somewhat monotonous performance that could have used more expressiveness. The role of Nero was nicely interpreted by countertenor Franco Fagioli, who shines especially in coloratura.

Another cancellation was that of contralto Marie Nicole Lemieux as Ottone; she was replaced by countertenor Xavier Sabata. He sang with gusto and expressiveness, and was possibly the most familiar with this opera of the entire cast. And there was a third substitution: Luca Pisaroni was to have played Emperor Claudius, but in his place was bass-baritone Renato Dolcini, whose voice was appropriate and nicely handled, although he too lacked expressiveness.

The secondary characters were well covered. Bass Andrea Mastroni as Pallante had an attractive voice, and Narciso was correctly interpreted by countertenor Carlo Vistoli. Finally, Biagio Pizzutti was a sonorous Lesbo.

The Teatro Real was almost sold out. The audience was rather cool during the concert and at the final bows. The most applauded moment during the concert was Nero’s aria in Act III, and that did not exceed 15 seconds.

José M. Irurzun

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