The cast, orchestra and conductor of David Pountney’s new Zurich production, which had opened the previous Monday (11 May), arrived at the Royal Festival Hall for a rescheduled matinée performance of Agrippina, not only in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, but also to celebrate the work’s own 300th birthday, as Handel had composed it for Venice in 1709. Handel was barely 24 and there can be no doubt that he was out to impress with this score, witty and scintillating in his retelling Roman empress Agrippina’ machinations to ensure her son Nero follows her husband Claudius as emperor.
Mark Minkowski conducted Zurich Opera’s large authentic orchestra, La Scintilla (16 violins, five violas, five cellos etc) and a starry cast, headed by Vesselina Kasarova’s conniving in the title role, with a fixed smile when she was in manipulation mode (so, for most of the opera, then), in a sparkling, thrilling performance of Handel’s early score. The Royal Festival Hall’s back white sail over the stage was tilted more vertically, to enhance projection.
Kasarova was joined by towering László Polgár, with his shock of white hair, imperious (pun intended) as her husband Claudio, Anna Bonitatibus as her son Nerone, the utterly charming Eva Liebau as Poppea and Marijana Mijanoviæ as Ottone. All three men are in love with Poppea, while Agrippina has her own admirers (Ruben Drole’s Pallante and José Lemos Narciso in a fine comic double act), who she uses to promulgate her devious plans, before playing each off against the other to get her way. Gabriel Barmúdez – who I’d noticed in Christie’s first Jardin de Voix back in 2002 (when I likened him to Alan Opie) – proved his promise in the albeit small part as Claudio’s factotum, Lesbo.
With all but Liebau without scores (Kasarova had hers open, but barely glanced at it), and exits and entrances taken from the production – with Pallante and Narciso walking behind the orchestra, and even Minkowski getting in on the act at one point – this was a confident, engrossing performance. There was applause after each aria from the very start and ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation even while Minkowski was conducting the final ballet, after Juno’s climactic appearance, in the form of Wiebke Lehmkuhl.
Moving two miles across the River Thames and 24 years in Handel’s career, while simultaneously putting the dramatic clock back perhaps 2000 years into mythical times, many of Agrippina’s audience made the trek to the Barbican Hall for a much more serious work indeed – Arianna in Creta. Christopher Hogwood conducted his Academy of Ancient Music, with its slightly smaller forces than Minkowski’s, also swapping trumpets for horns.
Here, understandably, more score-bound (there hadn’t been a British performance in 30 years), Hogwood had to contend with more than his fair share of cast changes. High profile Angelika Kirchschlager was replaced by Kristina Hammerström as Teseo (Theseus) and Alice Coote, originally billed to singe Tauride, was replaced by Marine De Liso, her diminutive figure belying the prize-fighter stature of her character. They were joined by sweet-toned Miah Persson in the title role, Lisa Milne as Alceste, Sonia Prina as Carilda and Antonio Abete as both King Minos and Sleep (Il Sonno).
There could be hardly any greater contrast to Agrippina’s frothy, playful, brilliant score; here the tale of Theseus arriving in Crete ready to challenge the terms of Minos’ ransom from Athens by attempting to both kill the Minotaur and fight Tauride and his love for Arianna (who turns out to be Minos’ daughter), is given a grand – almost old-fashioned setting. This is late Handel opera, but with a preponderance of early-style da capo arias, while just over a year later (1735, the year of Ariodante and Alcina) he was being far more radical. Perhaps that explains its modern rarity, although it was successful in January 1734, with 16 performances, and revived later that year with added dances. Hogwood was steadfast in his choice of the original version, sans dances.
While individual performances in Agrippina stood out – Liebau, Mijanoviæ and Polgár particularly – the pleasure of discovering Arianna made the second Handel of the day just as invigorating an event. Hogwood is more staunchly authentic than Minkowski, his instrumental timbres more acerbic; but somehow his performance was more intimate, perhaps because the players were backed by the stepped stage, set as if for a chorus, but here used – with a little imagination – as Crete’s craggy coast, the action set on the shore. While there was unintended humour in the all-too-brief Act 3 off-stage clash with the Minotaur, and even briefer dispensing of Tauride (the handing over of the latter’s magic belt), for the most part Handel’s serious purpose was splendidly carried off.
There are those, I know, who found two Handel’s on one day was too much. I revelled in the combination. The law of diminishing returns certainly didn’t set in with me.
Arianna in Creta was recorded for BBC Radio 3’s on-going Handel marathon and will be broadcast on ‘Afternoon on 3’ on 24 September.
- Nick Breckenfield