Barbara, Richard, Mimmi, Ric, and I saw *Agrippina* at the Met on 3/7/20. It’s a Handel opera from 1709, the oldest opera ever done at the Met. Handel was only 24 when he wrote it, which is astonishing - - the music is absolute genius, endlessly inventive, masterfully varied. The five of us had seen Wagner’s *Der Fliegende Holländer* at the Met the night before, which was written when Wagner was 28, when he was still finding his voice, still figuring out what he was doing. Handel was fully formed in *Agrippina,* to my ear he required no development!
It’s the story of Roman empress Agrippina (aka Agrippina the Younger or Agrippina Minor), who lived from AD 15 to AD 59. She was the younger sister of Caligula, the niece and fourth wife of Claudius, and the mother of Nero. The librettist, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, heightened and fictionalized the story, but there’s plenty of drama in the real story, so he didn’t have to make up much!
The production was directed by David McVicar. I’ve seen nine of his new productions at the Met, going back to 2009:
Cavalleria Rusticana / I Pagliacci
Clearly he’s their go-to guy for Italian operas with strong diva attitude, and *Agrippina* is that in the biggest way. He gave it a contemporary setting - - Richard would have preferred that they set it in the period, with the performers wearing togas and the like, but I thought the contemporary setting made it more fun, more relatable. And really, the conniving, the sleeping around, and the political machinations of the early ADs, is it really so different from what’s going on now?
The star of the show was Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina. I’ve heard her many times but was most impressed with her in *The Enchanted Island,* a Baroque pastiche opera the Met did in 2011. The opera wasn’t that great, but her performance was fantastic, especially the way she injected drama into the words. She flourished in this area in *Agrippina.* The structure of the start of the opera is interesting: the first scene has her manipulating her son, lots of recitative followed by an aria for the son. The next scene has her manipulating one of her paramours, Pallante - - lots of recitative followed by an aria for Pallante. Then a scene of her manipulating another of her paramours, Narciso - - lots of recitative followed by an aria for Narciso. She was the puppet master in all of these scenes, driving the action and singing the recitatives with great force and pointedness. Then finally she sang an aria and it was a stunner, with more bravura writing than we had heard so far. Handel wrote the role for Durastani, one of the lead singers of the time, so he wrote music that showed her at her best. And three hundred years later, DiDonato stepped up to the plate and knocked the ball out of the park.
Here she is singing an excerpt from her aria, "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate:"
One other thing about her performance that might be difficult to explain. I sit way up in the clouds, very far from the stage, in the Family Circle. I love it up there because the sound is great, you can see the whole stage, and (best of all) it’s real cheap. I used my opera glasses quite a lot for most of the singers but didn’t use them very often for DiDonato. I think this is because she’s spent much more time on the Met stage than any of the other singers (probably as much as all of them combined) and she knows how to scale her performance for the size of the space. Which isn’t to say that her manner was noticeably BIG, it was just the right size for the hall.
I don’t think I’d heard mezzo Kate Lindsey before. Her physical performance impressed me more than her singing, though her singing was very good. I’ll keep my eye on her, I think she might develop into a very interesting singer. Nicholas Tamagna made his Met debut in the role of Narciso and his voice was unusually lush and warm for a counter tenor, I liked him a lot. I’d heard counter tenor Iestyn Davies three or four times and had never much cared for his voice - - it’s a little too chilly and thin for my taste. But I liked him a lot in this role, it suited him very well and he looked majorly cute in his navy uniform.
Brenda Rae made her Met debut as Poppea, the second lead in the show (this designation becomes official when they decide on the order for the bows in the curtain call). Brenda is from Appleton, Wisconsin and we have many mutual friends, though I’ve never met her. She did her undergrad at UW-Madison and studied with my friend Mimmi Fulmer - - Mimmi sat next to me for *Der Fliegende Holländer* the night before, and she, her husband, and his aunt splurged on good seats for *Agrippina,* she’d never had a student sing a lead role at the Met.
Anyway, back to Brenda. She did her master’s at Juilliard and I heard her in a small role in *Miss Lonelyhearts,* a new opera by Lowell Lieberman. The opera wasn’t so great but Brenda knocked me out. Everything was there - - the singing, the acting, the total commitment, she was the real deal. She went on to sing major roles at Glyndebourne, the Bavarian State Opera, La Scala, and other great houses. I heard her in a concert performance of Handel’s *Semele* at Carnegie Hall in April of 2019 and again, she knocked me out. Her performance in *Agrippina* was supreme and exciting but not really a surprise. I’ll quote Addison De Witt in *All About Eve* (something I do fairly often): “Of course your performance was no surprise to me. After the other day I regarded it as no more than a promise fulfilled.”
Here she is singing an excerpt from her aria, "Se giunge un dispetto:"
She has an incredible technique, it seems she can do anything and everything, but the true mark of a great musician is to put your technique at the service of the music. So in *Semele* and *Agrippina,* you marveled at her ability, but also at the genius of Handel. She’s playing Lulu next season, and as much as I love the opera and would so love to hear her/see her in the role, I really, really hate the production and am tempted to stay home and listen to it on the radio. I’m on the fence about that.
Conductor Harry Bicket is the master when it comes to conducting Handel, he does it with flavor, drive, and snap. He also played the recitatives from the harpsichord. It was a long evening (three and a half hours) but he kept things moving forward. I’m sure it’s not easy to get some sense of the Baroque sound from modern instruments, from an orchestra that had played Wagner the night before, but he really made it happen.