Sunday, March 1, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Everybody Loves Poppea" (on the Met's production of Handel's Agrippina)

everybody loves poppea
by Douglas Messerli

Vincenzo Grimani (libretto), George Frideric Handel (composer), David McVicar (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Agrippina /  2020 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Yesterday Howard and I saw at a local theater the MET-live in HD performance of, so the host Deborah Voight explained, the oldest opera, Handel’s Agrippina of 1709to ever be performed on the MET stage. 
      Given the existence of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (from 1643), his Orfeo (from 1600), and numerous other works, it seems amazing that this great institution has not attended to the early operatic works in the repertoire. We’ll see if, while embracing more contemporary operas—something I very much support—whether or not they can reach back into the repository of Baroque and pre-Baroque compositions as well. Of course, I love the great Verdi standards, the lovely Puccini operas, etc. But we simply need a wider range, which I do believe the current director of the MET, Peter Gelb, is willing to embrace.

     Handel’s work, written when he was just 24, is a fascinating glimpse into the Baroque world that one might never have imagined. Although, given the sometimes-narrative clumsiness of Agrippina, and the seemingly determined length of this work, there are some limitations. 
     We might forget all of these "limitations," however, given the absolutely stunning singing and performances of the great stars performing this work, most notably Joyce DiNonato (as Agrippina), two countertenors—the wonderful Iestyn Davies (as the Poppea’s main lover, Ottone), and the more comic would-be lover Narciso (Nicholas Tamagna)--a “pants” female performer, the amazing Kate Lindsey (as Nerone), the endlessly beautifully singing of Poppea (Brenda Rae), and, to represent the lower ranges of the score, Matthew Rose (as Claudio).

     All of these great performers sing so remarkably that it’s almost difficult to perceive just how morally awful most of them are in character, involving one another, through Agrippina’s evil machinations, into a serial descent into destruction and death. Besides, Baroque operas almost always end incredible positively.
     It is difficult to even imagine why the lovely Agrippina, married to the Roman emperor Claudio, is so very determined to put her sociopathic son, Nero, covered from heel to toe with tattoos which represent his ostracization from the society in which he lives, into power. Perhaps she imagines that she might be the power behind the throne; but in reality Nerone immediately has his own mother murdered. This is after all, a truly treacherous world in which Agrippina attempts to kill both of her would-be admirers—Pallante (Duncan Rock) and Narcisco—egging them on to murder one another (by gunshot and a heroin-like drug) along with Claudio’s favorite, who has just saved his life, Ottone. She’s totally ruthless—a role that the lively and assertive DiNonato totally embraces ("I always wanted to play Scarpia," she observed during an intermissions break)—in her character’s rather simple-minded attempt to get her son to the top of the golden steps to the Roman throne. Perhaps the question of “why?” is simply meaningless in this work. Power is power even if it surely leads to death, including her own.

    The image which dominates this John Macfarlane and David McVicar production is a mausoleum in which all of these significant figures are, by opera’s end, entombed. These figures were determined to be destroyed almost before they live out their full lives.
     In this production, the characters engage in promiscuous sex, alcohol, drugs, and many other of the societal sins one might have imagined, along with what I might describe as a bit too much of McVicar’s shtick presentation of these dark events—although the director’s introduction of a harpsichord player as a sort of “cocktail-bar” piano player is quite brilliant.
     Both Agrippina, the intense liar among them, showering intrigue upon each person she meets like a storm of terrible torrents, and her young athletically-inflicted son Nerone, who can hardly walk straightforwardly up to the gold throne he is inexplicably awarded by opera’s end, are tortuous folks right out of the President Trump playbook. These are the most notable “them and us” figures of the early 18th century. They need to be destroyed, just as they soon are.

    Yet, one wonders at musical arias they create, particularly in the end of Ottone’s denunciation sung by the tortured, wrongly accused hero, “Otton, qual portentoso fulmine" followed by "Voi che udite il mio lamento"; the later laments of Agrippina “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”; and the later cocaine induced fury of Nerone’s  aria “Come nube che fugge dal vento” (“Like a cloud that flees from the wind”). 
     If much of this amazing opera seems rather rote, right out of the young Handel’s Baroque playbook, with a far too many repeated statements and implorations, with the splendiferous performances of countertenor Davies, the always amazingly-voiced DiDonato, and the rather startling tonsils of Lindsey (including her fascinating abilities to dance out the role of her Nerone) we are so captivated by this opera that it seems almost impossible to quibble about this piece. I cried at each of these fabulously wonderful moments of performance, so intense and beautifully expressed that you truly realize what great operatic singing is all about.
      This concert was dedicated to the former MET diva Mirella Freni, who died this year at the age of 84. A brief intermission performance of her singing talent revealed to all how significant were her abilities. The MET, apparently, now realizes just how much of an archive of great singing and music it represents. And I do believe under Gelb’s directorship it might continue to perceive itself as an impossibly endangered wonderland of operatic possibilities.
      The wonderful woman who sat next to me spotted the MET’s cameras focusing in a balcony seat on Jake Heggie, in whose opera Dead Man Walking DiDonato had also previously performed. I shared with her that his opera would be staged and presented on MET’s HD production in April of this year. My neighbor had evidently worked with Heggie at UCLA. I can never get over the fact that the people I meet in the theater are just as interesting as the stars I encounter upon the stage.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2020).

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