A groper-in-chief careens from self-congratulation to petty wrath. Affairs of state take second place to personal vendettas. Aides abase themselves to prove their loyalty. A callow heirlet acquires power he’s unprepared to handle. A good soldier is blackballed for doing his job. Relief packets are lobbed to the suffering masses. If you needed a reminder that we are now living through a replay of Rome’s decadence, then the Met’s new production of Handel’s Agrippina is the opera for you. The emperor even lumbers about in a baggy blue suit and overlong tie.
Neither Handel, who wrote the opera in 1709, nor the director David McVicar, who first mounted a version of this production in Brussels 20 years ago, is any kind of Nostradamus; parables of corrupt government are always timely, though there is something eerily on the mark about this one. The opera focuses on succession in imperial Rome: Claudius’s consort, Agrippina, maneuvers to get her lout of a son Nero on the throne, and betrays lovers, friends, and subordinates to get the job done.
The title, the plot, and the posters all place Joyce DiDonato’s character at the heart of the opera, and the mezzo-soprano is, as always, a star — majestically devious, irresistibly charming, and armed with a voice that ranges from intimate to incandescent. She is a generous colleague, too, willing to let Brenda Rae as Poppea and Kate Lindsey as Nero upstage her, confident that the spotlight will eventually swing back where it belongs. But McVicar abuses that team spirit, turning his production into a hyperactive sporting event, pitting singer against singer and his staging against the score. The result is a show that’s fun to watch, exciting to hear (with eyes closed), and terminally distant. Mistrusting Handel and his splendid cast to provide a few sublime hours of opera, the director undercuts them both. It’s a particular shame that the countertenor Iestyn Davies, as the honorable Ottone, sings with limpid beauty and fades undeservedly into the background.
Not Lindsey, though. Costumed as a tatted-up ’90s skater punk, she plays young Nero as a slouching, sneering, manic cokehead, sniffing through arias and wriggling around the stage like a glob of mercury with an out-of-control libido. The not-yet-emperor Nero fiddles with himself while the music flares. He/she is not the only one with an unscratchable itch. Handel’s music is sexy, a froth of shuddering harpsichords, sinuous melodies, and ecstatic flutterings. A more modest director might let the score do its thing unmolested, but McVicar makes sure that when the high note comes, somebody is always grabbing a crotch, just in case you missed the sub-sext.
Lindsey is a gifted physical actor. Light, lean, and bendy enough to fold into a carry-on bag, she moves with the wild elegance of Buster Keaton. Her Nero is constantly doing pushups and leg lifts, slithering around the stage, slinking up and down stairs, and rubbing against other female cast members. It would be annoying enough to have a conversation with someone in that state; the fact that she’s singing florid coloratura at the same time doesn’t make it easier to grasp what she was trying to communicate. That’s a problem, because Handel’s music does communicate, and Lindsey, who has a voice as agile as her limbs, doesn’t need the antics to sell an aria.
Handel bifurcated his style into two separate modes. Plot, wit, deception, and irony belong to the recitative sections, when characters sing at the cadence of stagey speech, accompanied by a rhythm section that keeps up as best it can. Misunderstandings and accusations fly at sitcom speeds. But when an aria starts, time stops and the mask drops. Characters turn to us, their confidants, and spill out their passions and fears. And then they do it again. In a da capo aria, the singer finishes a thought, then takes it from the top, and it’s up to each performer to justify the repetition by intensifying the expression, drawing the listener ever deeper into the character’s emotional state.
McVicar is having none of that. Terrified of boring the audience for even a couple of seconds, he stuffs so much stage business into every measure that the inner content dissipates like cocaine in a sneeze. Nero sings about that sort of ephemerality in Act III, when he sees both his love and his ambitions vaporize, and the aria “Come nube che fugge dal vento” (“Like a cloud that flees from the wind”) is a gem of flighty rage. But instead of just letting Lindsey sing the thing (which she does with technique and flair), the director has her shake out a pound or two of powder on a marble pedestal, then cut and snort it — then run through the whole dreary gag again.
McVicar overdoses on his own cleverness in Act II, where Poppea staggers into a bar, already drunk, and runs into Ottone, the lover she believes has given her up. There are brilliant moments. This joint boasts a stupendous bar harpsichordist, Bradley Brookshire, whose onstage playing heats up the scene. Rae’s Poppea slumps, drawls, and pops her head up to sing with touching vulnerability and firm command over her voice. But then the bartender starts juggling bottles, a pair of boozed-up dancers refuses to clear the floor, and nobody can pay much heed to any of the marvelous notes.
Well, Harry Bicket can. The conductor, unfazed, keeps the musical side of things tight and sparkling, and does his best by the unflappably excellent cast. The concentration of musical talent onstage and in the pit becomes obvious when McVicar momentarily backs off, about midway through the evening. Things are looking bleak for the empress’s schemes, and DiDonato, commanding an almost dark stage, delivers a rapture of self-doubt, the aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (“Thoughts, you torment me”). Desperate to get a grip on power, Agrippina loses her grip on herself.
This is music-drama at its finest: A great singer, aided by a sympathetic orchestra and a loyal spotlight, makes intimate contact with a receptive audience. The orchestra lays down an introduction of slashing minor chords. DiDonato draws out a bitter a cappella sigh, echoed by a lonely oboe. And we’re off, a flawed person exposed before the public, spinning through regret, desire, self-pity, love, and determination — the stuff great opera is made of.
Agrippina is at the Metropolitan Opera through March 7.