The Royal Opera is working its way through the operas and oratorios Handel composed for the first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden – but Agrippina is not one of them: this scabrous political satire was composed for Venice in 1709, near the beginning of his international career.
The libretto – probably the work of Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, prelate and diplomat – is set in ancient Rome, and centres on the tireless machinations of Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, to arrange for Nero, her son from a previous marriage, to reach the throne.
The piece is darkly comic, showing not only Agrippina but also the other characters to be irredeemably deceitful, weak, sexually obsessed, or simply utterly immoral. Following the fall of the curtain, most of them would go on in real life to become Nero’s victims – including his mother, whom he subsequently had executed.
Barrie Kosky’s production originated in Munich earlier this year. Its list of co-producers indicates what a high value is currently placed on the Australian-born, Berlin-based director’s work; but in this instance, the result, though in many ways entirely characteristic, doesn’t represent Kosky at his best.
The comic-grotesque manner he regularly espouses certainly suits the subject, but at times it wears thin: Agrippina is a serious comedy with a brilliantly ironic libretto, but now and again this show descends into sex-comedy or farce.
The cast is uneven too – though Joyce DiDonato effortlessly demonstrates why this extraordinary artist has become a leading star: her Agrippina is a tour de force of vocalism directed to dramatic ends combined with an acting performance that never misses an opportunity provided by either the text or the staging.
Alongside her, Franco Fagioli suggests Nero’s mother’s-boy insecurity, though he handles the music mechanically. Lucy Crowe’s Poppea occasionally suffers from the frequently exciting up-tempo conducting of rising Russian Maxim Emelyanychev, who once or twice outpaces her, but under his direction the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment certainly earns its place in the pit.
Iestyn Davies’ lovelorn Ottone is mellifluous and measured, but while Gianluca Buratto gives a decent account of bumbling Claudio, his low notes are noticeably weak. Andrea Mastroni and Eric Jurenas offer a neat double-act as courtiers Pallante and Narciso – both putty in Agrippina’s manipulative hands.
Designer Rebecca Ringst’s set is a clever metal structure that reconfigures itself into all manner of interiors and exteriors in shades shifting between black, white, grey and silver – but does so rather noisily.
Kosky’s direction is crisp and clear, if sometimes manic; but it’s the very close of the show, when to an interpolated piece of instrumental music from one of Handel’s oratorios, we see Agrippina alone, contemplating whether her endless scheming has actually been worth it, that sets the seal on DiDonato’s performance – and the evening as a whole.