Agrippina - Zurich Opera / Orchestra La Scintilla / Marc Minkowski - Royal Festival Hall, 17 May 2009
I don't know if many opera houses would dare copy what Zurich Opera did at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday afternoon. That's bring a whole new opera production - minus sets and costumes but including full cast and orchestra - all the way to London halfway through its first ever run (10 to 26 May). Crazy! But it meant we got to see a superbly rehearsed orchestra, a top flight international cast (the best that deep Swiss pockets could purchase) and a semi-staging alive with the wit and vitality of David Pountney's production.
Pountney sees Handel's tale of scheming Romans as a comic satire. Marc Minkowski agrees. Hairshirt historical purists would have been horrified by his arching phrases, vibrato, and - worst of all - a teeny quote from Chopin's Marche funèbre tucked behind the premature announcement of Emperor Claudio's death. On a plug-in organ no less. How 'correct' it all is remains debatable, but it certainly sounded 'right'.
In front of the orchestra on the unadorned Royal Festival Hall stage and stripped of her Zurich appurtenances of leopardskin coat and hanging carcases, Vesselina Kasarova's Bette Davis style mugging in the title role was as bizarre as her mannered singing with its pronounced register break between velvety chest and gleaming top. But her coloratura was precise, her pianissimi secure, and her every appearance on stage was undeniably captivating.
None of the remaining cast could match her on the scenery-chewing front, but they all threw themselves whole-heartedly into convincing physical portrayals, with some enterprising use of the limited space around the podium and behind the orchestra. There was some impressive singing from the other two mezzos, Marijana Mijanović as the trusting Ottone and Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina's dim son Nerone. Eva Liebau's sweet Poppea didn't seem much of a schemer compared with Kasarova, but her lovelorn arias were more convincing.
It was a pleasure to hear László Polgár's inimitably sonorous bass as Claudio - and how deftly his heavy instrument handled the ornamentation. Baritone Ruben Drole and countertenor José Lemos as the easily-duped Pallante and Narciso provided some purely comic relief. Even the small parts of Giunone and Lesbo were handled with style by Wiebke Lehmkuhl and Gabriel Bermudez.
In all, it was a demonstration of how much a well-directed staging, however limited by space and equipment, can add to to a concert performance. Not to mention how much more clearly Handel's music is revealed when interpreted with instinct as well as intellect.
Photos from the Zurich production here.
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