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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL OPERA REVIEW
Soloists, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.Conductor: René Jacobs. Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. 7.2.2010 (JMI)
New Production from Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin.
Direction: Vincent Boussard.
Sets: Vincent Lemaire.
Costumes: Christian Lacroix.
Lighting: Guido Levi.
Agrippina: Alexandrina Pendatchanska.
Poppea: Anna Prohaska.
Claudio: Marcos Fink.
Ottone: Bejun Mehta.
Nerone: Jennifer Rivera.
Pallante: Neal Davies.
Narciso: Dominique Visse.
Lesbos: Daniel Schmutzhard.
Caption Bejun Mehta as Nerone – Picture © Monika Rittershaus
The end of last year we commemorated the 300 years since the premiere of Agrippina at the Teatro Malibran in Venice. This anniversary has naturally meant a certain prominence for the opera during this season in the programs of several different opera theatres. In September, the Theater an der Wien started with a concert version, then Venice followed with a new production by Fabio Biondi, a few days later there was a new concert version at Teatro Real, and now the Berlin Staatsoper also offers a new production of the opera.
Agrippina is the second opera that Handel wrote during his first stay in Italy. It is based on the historical figure of Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius and Nero’s mother, and narrates the story of her intrigues to have her son installed on the Roman throne. Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani wrote one of the best librettos in the history of opera for it: full of irony, humor and double meanings and Handel composed a very appropriate score for this semi - seria (or semi- buffa) plot, borrowing some passages from his other operas and oratorios, as was often his habit. In particular, excerpts from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and from his first Italian opera, Rodrigo, are both present in Agrippina.
The new production is by French director Vincent Boussard, who offers a very interesting view of the work. As is more and more usual these days, this is a minimalist production, in which the stage contains two important elements: a walkway around the orchestral pit and a stage and a profusion of light metallic chains forming curtains running from the front to the back of the stage which allow excellent performing possibilities. The costumes by the prestigious Christian Lacroix go from the ingeniously ridiculous for the men (excepted for Ottone) to positive brilliance for the women and there is also an excellent lighting plot by Guido Levi, aided by the metal curtains already mentioned. Vincent Boussard’s direction highlights the humorous side of opera and he produces outstanding work with the characters of the Emperor Claudio and his valet Lesbos, as well as with the courtiers Pallante and Narciso. Claudio gets real laughter from the audience, particularly in the scene shwing his seduction by Agrippina. To keep the audience’s attention and interest for an opera lasting over four hours is no easy task yet Mr. Boussard achieves this goal admirably.
The first great star of the evening was Belgian René Jacobs conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. His reading was excellent from beginning to end and the orchestra is one of the very best I have ever heard in this repertoire. Everything about their performance was extremely bright, moving and exquisitely played. With performances like this around these days, it’s no wonder that baroque music is favoured by so many opera fans.
In the cast there was also one extraordinary singer, whose performance was equally praiseworthy - the countertenor Bejun Mehta singing the role of Ottone. I have always found this artist to be one of the most important, if not the very best, in his genre and here he proved it again. His virtuoso singing was magnificent, but where he left me breathless was when singing the lyrical and expressive arias. Countertenor singing doesn’t get better than this and so far as I am concerned Bejun Mehta is second to none in this repertoire. The rest of the cast did not quite not match his outstanding quality level obviously. Probably no-one could.
The protagonist, the manipulative Queen Agrippina, had a good interpreter in Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska, a singer frequently cast by René Jacobs. Personally, I prefer a mezzo - soprano for this character, although it is true that the role is very much in the middle of the voice and it can be played by a soprano with a very rich lower register. Ms. Pendatchanska is a good singer and an expressive interpreter, but she lacks the the richness and sensuality that a mezzo soprano in her lower range, such as Ann Hallenberg revealed both in Venice and Madrid while singing the same role.
The young Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska - she’s 26 and the daughter of an English soprano and Austrian director, sang Poppea. She is a light soprano, something of a soubrette in fact, and good actress, but like Agrippina herself, her character needs a richer voice and greater variety of colours than she currently offers. This criticism does not refer to her singing , which is really very good, but purely to her vocal suitability to the demands of her character. Poppea is more Cleopatra than Despina, while Prohaska is more the opposite. Danielle De Niese would be perfect for the role.
Something similar happened with the American mezzo Jennifer Rivera as Nerone. She is a lyric mezzo soprano with a rather impersonal voice, despite being a techically proficient singer and a good actress. Something more is needed for Nero amongst such a stellar cast.
Thee Argentinian bass baritone Marcos Fink was a hilarious Emperor Claudio, making a genuine new creation of his character. Vocally, he is not quite as good, need more sonorous low notes.
In the secondary characters Neal Davies was a funny and well sung Pallante and much the same ca be said of French countertenor Dominique Visse as Narciso. The Austrian baritone Daniel Schmutzhard was an outstanding Lesbos both as singer and actor.
The theatre was completely sold out with many “suche karte” notices outside. There was frequent and warm applause during the opening scene and at the final bows the greatest ovations went to Bejun Mehta, René Jacobs and the splendid Orchestra. Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Anna Prohaska and Marcos Fink were also received with enthusiasm. The final standing ovation seemed to go on forever.
José M Irurzun