George Frederick Handel, that genius, wrote some forty operas, and a lot of them have titles beginning with “A”—in fact, thirteen of them do. One of them is Agrippina, written for the 1709–10 Carnival season in Venice. What do we know from this opera? “Bel piacere,” a soprano aria, and possibly “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate,” another soprano aria, though it can be sung by a mezzo, as it was at the Metropolitan Opera last night.
Agrippina is about court intrigue in ancient Rome. The title character is Nero’s mother, who plots to put that charmer on the throne.
Until this season, the opera had not been staged at the Met, although I remember a City Opera production in the 2001–2 season. (For my review, go here.) The Met’s cast is half American, half British, with the great mezzo from Kansas, Joyce DiDonato, starring as Agrippina.
It was she who sang “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate.” That was the highlight of the evening, in my estimation. She sang the aria with skill and pathos. She is an exemplary Baroque singer, DiDonato. But then, she is a singer, all around, as she illustrated in Carnegie Hall two months ago when she traversed Winterreise, Schubert’s song-cycle. (Partnering her at the piano was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director.)
Who sang “Bel piacere”? Brenda Rae, an American soprano, previously unknown to me. She is a very able singer. And the character who sings “Bel piacere,” by the way, is Poppea, as in “The Coronation of.”
Some of the voices onstage last night were small or smallish. The Metropolitan Opera House, as you know, is very big. There ought to be matches of sounds and venues. I have written about this issue for my next “New York Chronicle.” Rosa Feola, the Italian lyric soprano, sang a recital in a beautiful room within the vast Park Avenue Armory. A nice match.
What’s more, I don’t think people should be afraid of big-voiced Handel. Sills, Treigle, Forrester, and the rest were very musical, you know. How about Price? (I’m thinking of Leontyne, but Margaret will do too.) Was her “Care selve,” for example, correct? How about her “Se pietà di me non senti”? I don’t know about “correct,” but great, yes, and Handel would have flipped.
Size aside, every singer onstage last night was competent at worst, splendid at best. Let me single out Nicholas Tamagna, an American countertenor. He was not the main countertenor—that was Iestyn Davies, in the role of Ottone—but he gave us an exceptionally beautiful sound. His character, Narcissus, was ridiculous—maybe Narcissi have to be—but this could not disguise the beauty of that voice.
In the pit was Harry Bicket, the English maestro known for Baroque music. Earlier this season, another Englishman, Mark Wigglesworth, conducted Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. At some length, I wrote about “period practice” and the Met. I will not repeat myself. Let me say, however, that I do not believe that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has to turn itself into Musica Antiqua Köln. I think warmth, color, and vibrato at the Met are just fine.
There is an old expression, “horses for courses.” Different horses for different courses. A bigger, plumper, warmer Agrippina at the Met would be no sin.
That said, Mr. Bicket knows his way around music, no doubt, and he conducted a taut, well-defined performance. There were occasional coordination problems between pit and stage, but these mattered little. Bicket is an assured fellow, a smart fellow. Outstanding in the orchestra was the principal oboe, Nathan Hughes. The oboe is essentially a cast member of Agrippina, and Hughes sang in masterly, moving fashion.
The Met’s production is by Sir David McVicar, one of the leading opera directors in the world. It is campy, very. And, for some of us, a little camp goes a long way. This is a camp-fest, through and through. At various points, I thought, “Is the production laughing with the opera? Or laughing at the opera? Does everything need to be a joke?”
Ms. DiDonato slunk around in high heels, poured into a tight skirt. I liked that. Her walk reminded me of Mrs. Wiggins, a Carol Burnett character of yore. (All Carol Burnett characters, granted, are of yore.)
Nero, portrayed by the mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, reminded me of Justin Bieber. More specifically, he reminded me of Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Bieber, on Saturday Night Live. In the Met production, Nero humps everything that moves, and some things that don’t.
The production is an “update,” transplanting the action from ancient Rome to our own time. There are selfies and all the rest. This is very popular in Baroque opera now, and in opera at large. But you don’t have to update an opera to make it “relevant.” The themes of Agrippina—and I don’t mean musical themes, but politics, sexual relations, etc.—are timeless. You can leave the characters in togas, and everyone will know, trust me.
Last night, Claudius was wearing a too-long red tie, same as someone in the White House. A nice little wink, I suppose.
You are supposed to judge things on their own terms, some say. On its own terms—theatrical and musical—this Agrippina succeeded. Succeeded brilliantly, frankly. How do you like those terms? On the answer to that question, everything depends.