Händel - Agrippina

Teatro de la Maestranza, Seville, Thursday February 13 2020

Conductor: Enrico Onofri. Production: Mariame Clément with Marcos Darbyshire. Sets and costumes: Julia Hansen. Lighting: Bernd Purkrabek. Videos: fettFim. Claudio: Matthew Brook. Agrippina: Ann Hallenberg. Nerone: Renata Pokupic. Poppea: Alicia Amo. Ottone: Xavier Sabata. Pallante: Joao Fernandes. Narciso: Antonio Giovannini. Lesbo: Valeriano Lanchas. Giunone: Serena Perez. Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla.

I already saw Mariame Clément's production of Agrippina, revived in Seville by Marcos Darbyshire, in Ghent in 2012, so I don't need to describe it in detail again here. It seemed to me somehow fresher-looking in Seville and I wondered if the sets had been rebuilt or repainted since, but apparently not. Maybe, someone close to the production suggested, it just looked better on the more spacious stage.

I also found I'd forgotten how full it was, from beginning to end, of well-timed comic detail - useful, as a young stage director who'd seen it remarked over coffee before the show, in keeping up the audience's interest over a long evening. With two intervals, it stretched to 4 hours 45 minutes: the score was performed almost uncut, for one thing, but also Enrico Onofri's tempi were relatively sedate, and his sluggish recitatives in particular sapped, I thought, some of the dramatic zip needed to sustain the action over the three acts.

In addition, seated in row 6 of the stalls, I found the reverberant acoustics at the Maestranza trying. In baroque works you need crispness and clarity; here it was all a bit fuzzy, ill-defined and distant-sounding, making for tiring listening as you strained for nearly five hours to be sure of catching everything. I gather, from people who know the house, there are seats in the house with good sound (bizarrely, I was told, on the front row or right up at the back), but I wasn't in one.

Händel
The cast was mostly different from the one I saw and heard in Ghent. There's always a risk, when Ann Hallenberg is on stage in a baroque work, of a serious imbalance between her and her younger, less experienced and often less gifted colleagues, and odious comparisons between her voice and the falsetti. Here it wasn't too noticeable, but she still reigned supreme, displaying the usual combination of technical perfection with beauty and consistency of timbre, expressiveness and, in this case, comic timing.

The only other member of the cast I heard in the same work in Ghent was Joao Fernandes, by now totally at home as Pallante. In Seville, Ottone was sung by countertenor Xavier Sabata, whose soft timbre and suave delivery suited the demands of the part, if not so much the hall's troubled acoustics. His act two arias were especially good. Alicia Amo has a sweet, agile lyric voice stretched just once, as Poppea, by the dramatic fury of 'Fa quanto vuoi', otherwise fine. Renata Pokupic played Nerone with a degree of youthful ardour and vigour that brought to mind, helped by the production, Cherubino. Matthew Brook was a solid, not to say stolid, Claudio.

Valeriano Lanchas deserves a last word for his Lesbo, better casting, vocally and as a comic actor, than these minor roles sometimes get.

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