By Lynne Gray, PhD
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Friday, August 7
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Starring Brenda Rae, Joyce DiDonato, Kate Lindsey, Iestyn Davies, Duncan Rock, and Matthew Rose, conducted by Harry Bicket. From February 29, 2020.
If this image doesn’t repulse you – then this is an opera you MUST see! Handel’s breakout masterpiece, Agrippina – he was only 24 when he wrote it – offers an outrageous, satirical look at the political maneuverings and personal entanglements of the Roman emperor Claudius and his cadre of advisers, hangers-on, and his particularly cunning wife, Agrippina. Baroque black comedy had its long-awaited Met premiere this year in a new production by Sir David McVicar that updates the original action to the present time. The New York Times called it “a devilish delight” – and I completely agree.
Extraordinarily talented mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato delivered a knockout performance in the title role – a woman who will stop at nothing to get her depraved son, Nero, on the throne (brilliantly, and athletically, sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey – pictured above with Joyce). Harry Bicket conducted this exceptional ensemble cast, which also featured gifted soprano and physical comedian Brenda Rae in her debut season at the Met, as the temptress Poppea; countertenor Iestyn Davies as the only honorable one among them – General Ottone; countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as the schemer Narciso; baritone Duncan Rock as his buddy Pallante; and bass Matthew Rose as Claudio (Claudius).
“Agrippina” shows Handel as the precocious master composer that he was. Ransacking his own works — and the works of others (it was usual in those days) — for catchy melodies, he created an exuberant yet sensitive score. The characters often slow down to express their true feelings before exploding once more into dazzling coloratura bursts of deception and double-dealing. In the early 1700s, this was recognized as a work with insightful contemporary reverberations, a fact that is as true today as it was then. In this production, the relentless grasping after dominance that is on continuous display — along with mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey’s gymnastically raunchy, coke-addled portrayal of Nero (Nerone) — certainly evoke something of the disorientation of our own time, and of, shall we say, our norm-breaking acceptance of things that would have been abhorrent only a short while ago. The story is ostensibly about the Roman empress Agrippina’s ferocious machinations to get her husband, Claudius, to cede the throne to her vastly unqualified son, Nero. Her obstacles — sometimes co-opted as her pawns — include the beautiful Poppea; the noble, lovelorn general Ottone; and a couple of bumbling, and considerably less than honorable, freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas.
And so – the story: Act 1
On receiving the (false) news that her husband, the Emperor Claudio, has died in a storm at sea, Agrippina initiates her plot to secure the throne for Nerone, her son by a previous marriage. The self-interested and derelict Nerone is unenthusiastic about this project but consents to his mother’s wishes “Con saggio tuo consiglio” (With your wise advice). She is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve her ends and sends separately for Pallante and Narciso, both of whom crave her in a decidedly dishonorable way. She promises each of them in turn that she will reciprocate their ‘love’ if they will proclaim Nerone as Claudio’s successor.
The Senate consents to her wishes, and Agrippina and Nerone begin to ascend the throne “Il tuo figlio/La tua prole” (Your child/your offspring). But, the ceremony is interrupted by the sudden entrance of Claudio’s servant, Lesbo. He announces that his master is actually alive “Allegrezza! Claudio giunge!” (Joy! Claudio is coming!) and was saved from death by Ottone, commander of the army. Ottone himself enters and confirms the news, while also revealing that Claudio has promised him the throne as a mark of gratitude. Agrippina is, of course, rather frustrated by this news, until Ottone secretly confides to her that he loves the beautiful Poppea more than he desires the throne.
Agrippina is aware that Claudio also loves Poppea, and sees a new opportunity to further her ambitions for Nero in this interesting development. We are then introduced to Poppea (admiring herself in a mirror): “Vaghe perle, eletti fiori” (Precious pearls, choice flowers… enhance my beauty). Agrippina enters and tells her (falsely) that Ottone has struck a bargain with Claudio, whereby he, Ottone, will gain the throne by giving Poppea to Claudio. Agrippina suggests that to avenge herself, Poppea should make Claudio jealous by convincing him that Ottone, taking advantage of his new status, has ordered Poppea to refuse Claudio and return to him: “Se giunge un dispetto” (make sure jealousy enters Claudio’s heart). Agrippina believes his jealousy will make Claudius revoke his promise of the throne to Ottone.
When Claudio goes to see Poppea, she executes Agrippina’s plan and denounces what she believes to be Ottone’s treachery. Claudio swears he will deal with Ottone … later! He wants Poppea now! But Agrippina is announced, and so he is forced to depart in frustration. Agrippina has ostensibly returned to console Poppea by declaring that their friendship will never be broken by deceit “Non ho cor che per amarti” (I have no heart but to love you).
Pallante and Narciso begin to realize that Agrippina has tricked them into supporting Nero. They decide to form an alliance against her and have no more to do with her. Ottone arrives, nervous and apprehensive about the imminent celebrations for his coronation “Coronato il crin d’alloro” (Crowned with the laurel wreath…). He is followed by Agrippina, Nero, and Poppaea, who have all come to greet Claudio. There is a triumphal chorus “Di timpani e trombe” (With drums and trumpets) as Claudio enters. Each in turns pays tribute to the Emperor, but Ottone is coldly rebuffed by all when Claudio denounces him as a traitor. To his increasing dismay, Ottone is shunned by Agrippina, Nerone, and Poppea. He is devastated and appeals to them for support. But, they all reject him, leaving him in bewilderment and despair “Otton, qual portentoso fulmine” (What does this all mean) followed by “Voi che udite il mio lamento” (You who hear my lament). Poppea, however, is touched by her former beloved’s grief, and wonders if he might not be innocent “Bella pur nel mio diletto” (How lovely it would be to find my beloved innocent). Taking a page from Agrippina’s book, Poppea devises a plan of her own and when Ottone approaches her, she pretends to talk in her sleep, recounting what Agrippina has told her earlier. Ottone, of course, overhears her and fiercely protests his innocence. He convinces Poppea that Agrippina has deceived her and Poppea swears revenge “Ingannata una sol volta” (I will be deceived only once), but she is distracted when Nerone enters, also declaring his love for her. In the meantime, Agrippina has been plotting again and commands Pallante to murder both Ottone and Narciso. Then, she asks Narciso to murder Ottone and Pallante. She tells Claudio that Ottone is seeking revenge on him for losing the throne and persuades him to punish Ottone by declaring Nerone as heir. Impatient to be with Poppea, Claudio agrees….(Are you confused yet!?)
Poppea now decides on some deceit of her own, wanting to divert Claudio’s wrath away from Ottone with whom she has now reconciled. She hides Ottone in her bedroom with instructions to listen carefully and to not be jealous because of anything he overhears. Soon Nerone arrives to press his love on her once again “Coll’ ardor del tuo bel core” (I arrive breathless to receive your ardor), but she tricks him into thinking Agrippina is on her way and has him hide as well. Then Claudio enters, and Poppea complains that he does not truly love her. He reminds her of all that he has done for her, including punishing Ottone. Poppea now tells him that he must have mis-understood her earlier: it was not Ottone, but Nerone, who had ordered her to reject Claudio. To prove her point to him, she asks Claudio to pretend to leave and then summons Nerone from his hiding place. Thinking Claudio has gone, Nerone resumes his passionate wooing of Poppea. (If you can keep this all straight – it’s hilarious!)
Claudio, of course, reappears and angrily dismisses the now pouting Nero. After Claudio departs, Poppea brings Ottone out of hiding, and the two express their everlasting love in separate arias. Back at the palace, Nerone confesses his troubles to Agrippina and begs her to protect him from Claudio’s rage. He decides to renounce love for political ambition in his famous aria, “Come nube che fugge dal vento” (Like a cloud fleeing from the wind). To redeem themselves, Pallante and Narciso have by now revealed Agrippina’s original plot to Claudio, so that when Agrippina urges the Emperor to yield the throne to Nerone, he accuses her of treachery. Agrippina cleverly realizes that her schemes are now in great jeopardy and so weaves an entirely new story, claiming that she acted only in Rome’s best interests. She then accuses him of paying undue attention to Poppea “Se vuoi pace” (If you want peace). Claudius, now feeling trapped and confused, just wants it all to end. When Poppea, Ottone, and Nerone arrive, Claudio announces that Nerone and Poppea will marry and that Ottone shall have the throne.
Needless to say, no one is satisfied with this arrangement – they all explain their changed desires – and so Claudio, in the spirit of reconciliation, reverses his first judgement, giving Poppea to Ottone and the throne to Nerone. He then summons the goddess Juno, who descends to pronounce a general blessing “V’accendano le tede i raggi delle stelle” (Let your path be lighted by the rays of the stars). Cheers!
1. Joyce DiDonato, left, in the title role and Kate Lindsey as Nerone in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times.
2. Joyce DiDonato in the title role in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.
3. The ensemble from Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
4. Brenda Rae as Poppea and Joyce DiDonato in the title role in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.
5. Iestyn Davies, left, as Ottone and Brenda Rae as Poppea in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.
6. Joyce DiDonato, left, in the title role and Matthew Rose as Claudio in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
7. Kate Lindsey as Nerone in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times.
8. Joyce DiDonato, left, in the title role and Matthew Rose as Claudio in Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2020. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.