Saturday 14th September and Friday 20th September 2019 – New season under way at the Royal Opera.

Not particularly in these diaries, but it would be fair to say that MAE has been a little underwhelmed by some of the productions in the first couple of years of Oliver Mears as Director of Opera at the ROH. I’m pleased to say he now seems to be hitting his stride with a revival of Massenet’s Werther starring Juan Diego Florez, and new productions of Handel’s Agrippina (with Joyce Didonato) and (still to be seen) Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (with Bryn Terfel). The first two are both reviewed here. More “cutting edge” will be David McVicar’s take on Britten’s Death in Venice.

OK, so Werther isn’t anything new, and MAE saw it in a live broadcast at Cineworld, Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne, in 2016 starring Vittorio Grigolo. (By-the-by, for local readers, the new Cineworld in the Beacon Centre, Eastbourne is featuring live broadcasts from the Met in New York this winter – and the National Theatre - more anon). In fact the production is owned by the Opera National de Paris, and is none the worse for that, and the original director was French film director Benoit Jacquot (best known for Farewell, My Queen and A Tout de Suite). It is a traditional production with traditional but very striking sets by English director and designer Charles Edwards. At this production the superb ROH orchestra was very well conducted by Edward Gardner (note for Eastbournians – and Londoners - he takes over from Vladimir Jurowski as Chief Conductor of the London Philharmonic in September 2021). The twin glories of this production are Juan Diego Florez in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte. (I was going to write “his” Charlotte, but the whole tragedy of the opera is the result of her already being betrothed to another). Florez is to my mind the greatest operatic tenor of the last half century. A bold claim indeed, though I have had the privilege to hear live, inter alia, Pavarotti (admittedly not in his pomp), Domingo (as Radames with the La Scala company in 1972 and many times latterly), Carreras, Alagna, Calleja and Kaufmann. I don’t recall any that could quite match Florez’s effortless richness of tone and range. He made his name in bel canto roles, most notably as Tonio in La Fille du Regiment with its nine high Cs in one aria. He has recently moved to more lyric roles such as Werther, where the French music magazine Diapason praised his “exemplary discipline in accent and phrasing, excellent shading…..with the natural allure of a poet”. They were absolutely spot on. American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was not in the least daunted by the reputation of her co-star. She played the role of the heroine torn between duty and love to perfection. A victim of circumstance she moves from attractive vulnerability to eventual strength but, as is often the way in grand opera, to no ultimate avail.

All of the other parts are well played though I would pick out Heather Engebretson, charmingly naïve as Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie, and Jacques Imbrailo as Charlotte’s fiancé/husband, so pompous you want to hit him. This production of Massenet’s deeply moving masterpiece is still as fresh as when first produced. Highly recommended (*****). Runs until 5th October.

If you are looking for something more “edgy” (at least superficially), the new Agrippina, directed by Barrie Kosky and designed by Rebecca Ringst, might fit the bill. Kosky is an Australian director whose productions are always different, always thought provoking and, best of all, never dull. His Carmen at the ROH featured a huge staircase the width and height of the stage and at one point Carmen herself enters in a gorilla costume – I forget why, I forget even if there was a why, but it certainly sticks in the memory. By contrast this show starts off rather dowdy and grungy. The curtain rises on a monochrome scene of what appears to be a large metal box with slatted sides – an electrical sub-station perhaps. There is a grey clad figure in a hoodie – no, not Dominic Cummings, but Agrippina’s son Nerone i.e. Nero (Franco Fagioli) who appears to be recovering from a night on the town. It is clear from the start that this isn’t going to be a temples, togas and tunics affair. Having said that the set itself (that metal box) revolves, divides and reforms in imaginative ways to produce grand staircase, balconies and interconnecting rooms. And the costumes (designed by Klaus Bruns) are often quite sumptuous, giving the impression that despite the rather drab and mechanistic surroundings we have here the height of society. And, as is often the case, they don’t behave well. Agrippina (Joyce Didonato) hears that her husband the Emperor Claudio (Gianlucca Buratto) has drowned in a storm at sea and tries to get her son, by a previous marriage, Nerone appointed as the new Emperor. Claudio lives however, and on his return appoints Ottone (Iestyn Davies), the general who saved his life, as the new Emperor. And so on………. The thing to remember is that Agrippina, despite being about Roman high politics, is a comedy, with, at least in Kosky’s hands, elements of a Whitehall farce with apologies to younger readers for whom the name Brian Rix means nothing). This is especially the case when Poppea (Lucy Crowe), described by several critics as a “sex-kitten” (Poppea not Lucy Crowe), invites Nerone, Ottone, and Claudio to her home separately but all at the same time – much hiding behind sofas and kitchen units.

Anyway, I think you are getting the picture. I have to admit that I haven’t a great deal of experience of Handel’s operas. Because there are so many (42, of various types according to one source), many of them not very well known, directors seem to find them an ideal blank canvas on which to put their own stamp. MAE is going to the Glyndebourne Touring Opera production of Rinaldo at the beginning of November, which is, I read, set in a school rather than during the First Crusade. More on that anon. This Agrippina works well and, despite its rather dark start, is a genuinely funny, entertaining show. It is rather long (another interval would protect the knees of those in the Amphitheatre) and I find Handel’s habit of having a short piece of recitative followed by an aria then another short piece of recitative and so on (you get the idea) rather tiring. I know that is how the Italian opera was done, but given that there are 47 arias, duets, trios etc. , it means that there is little time or space to appreciate each individual number. This is perhaps why few if any of these songs are widely known, unlike with Mozart (hard to calculate but Don Giovanni has about 24 such numbers, with longer action advancing recitatives in between). The cast is, as they say, a “stellar” one, including three counter-tenors. Fagioli and Davies are certainly superstars, and Eric Jurenas as Narciso was not overshadowed by them. Didonato was outstanding in both singing and acting, showing the scheming side of the role to perfection. In a piece of pure Kosky she sings one aria into a silver-spangled microphone under a spotlight. Lucy Crowe is fast becoming one of the most sought after and versatile sopranos. Her acting left no doubt as to why all three leading male characters were all in her thrall. And Gianluca Burrata as the Emperor Claudio showed that every leader who appears dignified in public can be very fallible in private.

This Agrippina is very much what the Royal Opera ought to be about. It initially appears challenging for the audience but as the performance progresses it is clear that the whole production works very well. The rotating set may appear mechanistic at first, but as it twists and turns and opens up we see the extravagant opulence and hedonistic luxury that lurks behind the banal grimy surface. Similarly the characters’ costumes move from dark greys to sumptuous silken golds, greens and vermilions. Here is a society where corruption is the norm. All is not well in the Julio-Claudian dynasty and in Handel’s time (probably) and today (certainly) the audience is meant to reflect on the mores of the present as well as the past. So (allowing for MAE’s own difficulties with Handel’s operatic oeuvre) this is a stimulating show with high production values and an outstanding cast who convince with their acting as well as their singing. So, *****. Continues until 11th October.

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