„Agrippina” by G. F. Händel
Am 23, July 2019
Picture from Staatsoper München unless otherwise indicated
Read in Spanish on ProOpera
The premiere of G. F. Händel’s “Agrippina” on July 23rd at the Opera Festival in Munich presented a 3,5 hours action-singing-marathon dominated by power play and opposition of sexes as well as their influence upon events and story development. To make this power play externally even more visible stage director Barrie Kosky and designer Rebecca Ringst created a set-box-like metal frame construction with whirring blinds and moving stairs, allowing the constant conversion of the set, and presenting different spaces and locations.
The staging is conventional and apart from for Kosky’s typical hectic, Eros-filled chaos, was rather an unspectacular accumulation of the mostly at-the-front-stage singing. An ongoing man-woman fluctuation of personae, so characteristic for baroque, was reinforced by simple, but chic and timeless costumes by Klaus Bruns. The characters are divided into beautiful, strong, manipulative women and mostly weak, hyperactive, but extremely horny males. All act on the verge of a nervous breakdown, hormonal over-pressure, and constantly building-up lust. The original tragedy of mostly a bloody power struggle was significantly undermined by the stage director, who often turned to a Boulevard-like performance or even slapstick. The audience did not cease to express its dislike of it by booing the production team at the final applause.
To fully comprehend the action and story behind this staging, one would have better read the libretto beforehand and be at some level familiar with Italian. Though the subtitles helped to understand the text, it was challenging to follow the drama, often distracted by those mentioned above, hectic, and staged superficiality. That the evening ended up being a success can be primarily attributed to the excellent singing and orchestra. The conductor of the evening Ivor Bolton, who was frenetically greeted by the audience after the break, is a real singer’s conductor. He and the Bavarian State Orchestra presented a historical, but simultaneously modern, sound, exhibiting a playful, light, comfortable tempis, profound sound, and solid musicians ensemble.
The strong cast was dominated by and is centered around the unfolding rivalry between two principal female characters: Agrippina and Poppea. Agrippina, a mother of future Emperor Nero, is a true master of political court intrigues. She is a real power woman, the one, Barrie Kosky is so much attracted to. In fact, almost every male character in the opera is drawn to this dressed in all black, mysterious woman.
Even her incestuous son: the young hipster Nero, whom she sees and wishes on the emperor’s throne. In an attempt to achieve this and prevent the ruling dynasty from imploding, Agrippina pulls all the registries of her political and female powers. She seduces, manipulates, and fights for her life and future. In the end, she remains sitting alone amidst the empty stage: a touching epitaph of the eternal loneliness of the powerful, strong woman. Alice Coote sings with a more lightweight than dramatic soprano. Sometimes sharp at the top, she is a great musician and seems to be born to sing and act this demanding part.
Elsa Benoît in the role of Poppea is not only optically, but also vocally a real beauty. Singing with full, lyric soprano, she presented a lovely timbre and a filigree lacework of dynamics. In the course of the performance, her character also makes a remarkable transformation from a tomboyish, rebellious girl to a young Agrippina, quickly learning from her older sister in faith a critical life lesson: men are only a means to an end. Franco Fagioli, as Agrippina’s pubescent teen son, has a big and beautiful voice. He is an excellent actor, a phenomenal singer, and his voice possesses an incredible virtuosity. Ottoneby Iestyn Davies presented a soft timbre, lots of pianis, messa di voce, and cantabile singing. In the end, the ostensible success and rise of young Poppea and the never-ending fight and powerful loneliness of aging Agrippina made one reflect upon the role and fate of women in (also modern) society: a distinctive sign of the powerful theater work, securing, despite at times unlucky stagings ideas, the sustenance as well as the survival of the art of the opera in the future.
Cast: Stage director: Barrie Kosky, Conductor: Ivor Bolton, Costumes: Klaus Bruns, Licht: Joachin Klein, Agrippina: Alice Coote, Claudio: Gianluca Buratto, Nerone: Franco Fagioli, Ottone: Iestyn Davies, Poppea: Elsa Benoît, Pallante: Andrea Mastroni, Narciso: Eric Jurenas, Lesbo: Markus Suihkonen, Giunone: Katarina Bradić, Bavarian State Opera Orchestra