Two very different evenings to report back on at the Royal Opera House recently. First, the main stage production of Handel's 'Agrippina', directed by Barrie Kosky - followed by Nigel Lowery's revival for Music Theatre Wales of Gerald Barry's first opera, 'The Intelligence Park', in the Linbury Studio Theatre (itself revived to impressive effect in the recent 'Open Up' refurbishments).
I still feel like I've seen relatively few Handel operas, and most of those in a concert environment, rather than fully staged. So when it comes to the formality of the aria/recitative structure - that kind of stop-start effect where the story races on in swiftly-delivered passages between glorious, emotionally-intense soliloquies that give the individual singers the chance to take flight - I associate that more readily with the drama that arises from the energy of the performers rather than necessarily the engine of the plot. (A good example might be the brilliant concert performance of 'Orlando' from about three years ago, given by the English Concert at the Barbican, where the musicians and soloists - including Iestyn Davies and Carolyn Sampson - gave the evening a relentlessly affecting drive.)
So, I'm always intrigued by what directors will do with this structure - how do you keep things moving when time stands still? And none more so than this time round, with this director. I know Kosky attracts controversy - I'd only previously seen his ROH production of 'The Nose' (which I found both enjoyable and barking mad), and I know his current staging of 'Carmen' has attracted mixed responses. But, as enfants go, he seems to be not so much terrible, as un peu insolent, perhaps. After seeing his take on 'Agrippina', I suspect he receives (and deserves) widespread respect and admiration because he can bring a radical and arresting interpretation to a 'traditional' work without resorting to mere shock tactics or 'concepts' for their own sake: if anything, I felt his treatment made the work come alive for me in ways that perhaps it might not have done in other hands - who knows?
In 'Agrippina', there's a significant amount of plot to get through. After hearing that her husband, the Emperor Claudio, has died at sea, Agrippina wastes no time in engineering her son Nerone's claim to the throne. To this end, she manipulates Pallante and Narciso (court advisers who are both smitten with her) to agitate on Nerone's behalf. However, Claudio is in fact alive, and has promised his title in gratitude to his rescuer, the loyal Ottone. Ottone, in turn, is in love with Poppea - but then Claudio and Nerone are infatuated with her as well. To bring the succession back to her son, Agrippina begins to manipulate the emotional and political weaknesses of the other characters - and even when, at times, they occasionally seem to outmanoeuvre her (Poppea, in particular), she ups her game accordingly, until mission accomplished. (With, astonishingly, everyone else alive - for now - and in reasonably good shape.)
(Lucy Crowe as Poppea - 'Agrippina' production photos are by Bill Cooper, from the ROH website)
Deceit and mischief are in the fabric of the opera, so while this is my first 'Agrippina', it's hard to imagine any production playing it as totally serious or po-faced. But Kosky is careful not to over-egg the pudding. The monochrome set looks, if anything, austere: a box of connecting rooms and stairs, either open to the exterior or visible/concealed by blinds - it's simple at first to look at and take in. But that belies the complexity and skill behind how it moves and rotates to create certain perspectives and reveal only what we need to see at any given time. And for the most part, the costumes are low-key, too - but telling. Sober suits for the gents, apart from sulky youth Nerone, who we first see in drab grey jeans and hoodie. Any flamboyance is linked with power - when Nerone initially thinks the throne is his, he turns up in a kind of PiL-era John Lydon gaudy suit for the coronation... and - as my friend Jamie sharply observed to me afterwards - as Poppea begins to steal a march on Agrippina, her outfits become more and more glamorous, as Agrippina's are increasingly pared down.
I think Kosky must be a great director of - and have great trust in - his actor-singers, as the comedy and personality of the piece belongs to them. At the start, the characters must play their cards close to their chest - Pallante and Narciso, who in the opera's opening moments are still nursing secret passions for Agrippina, are bundles of nervous tension, in constant movement. The tone of the piece is, I would say, knowing: the characters use their asides and soliloquies to 'break the fourth wall' conspiratorially, but the cast mostly pull back from any mugging or descent into lunacy, maintaining instead a kind of mockumentary/satirical feel.
(The cast, 'Agrippina')
There is one set piece which nods overtly to farce - when Poppea contrives to have Ottone, Claudio and Nerone visit her simultaneously, then hide them all from each other. However, chaos does not ensue - in fact, Poppea breezes through the scene, operating the men like puppets with the clockwork confidence of the old-school 'Mission: Impossible' team. Even the opening-closing doors routine was despatched with apparent nonchalance, as several characters in the room-boxes were seemingly flattened, in one movement, only to reappear. Overall, the impression of sophistication far outweighed that of silliness.
Another aspect I felt made the opera feel very immediate and, arguably as a result, current was its groove. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were in their element, and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev - directing from the keyboard - pushed them on at a comedy-thriller clip. I was in the Upper Slips - for the uninitiated, these are cheap seats very high up at the sides, so the deal is: you can't see the quarter or so of the stage nearest to you - but you are more or less right above the orchestra. Restricted view, then, but amazing sound. Looking down at the pit, then, I could have sworn at times that Emelyanychev had turned into Animal from the Muppets, a blurry form consisting solely of hair and arms. Theorbo player David Miller definitely appeared to be riffing at several points.
Because the music really swung, it's perhaps understandable that the rhythms found their way into the movements of the characters, with a gentle sway building to a passionate embrace, and - in one of the evening's stand-out sequences, a jubilant Poppea delivering an aria while throwing proper flamenco shapes between lines to express her exhilaration.
As Poppea, Lucy Crowe was charismatic and captivating. She has a graceful, yet dynamic onstage presence - in short, a brilliant mover (as anyone who saw her in the ROH production of 'Mitridate' or the more recent 'Cunning Little Vixen' at the Barbican can testify). Vocally, the entire cast hooked me in: in particular, as well as LC, Iestyn Davies sang with his special combination of sensitivity and steel as the brave but often understandably nonplussed Ottone; bass Gianluca Buratto lent Claudio the right mix of tomfoolery and threat; Franco Fagioli was unafraid to give Nerone a slightly abrasive edge that matched the character's sullen volatility.
Orbiting them all was the magnificent Joyce DiDonato with an appropriately commanding performance in the title role. She's just full of wondrous sounds and deeds. Agrippina is so mired in schemes that she almost needs to present multiple personalities at the drop of a hat, and JD had all of this in the singing as well as the actions: cooing and sighing when ensnaring a would-be lover, to purposeful and commanding when taking control (at one point, playing to the crowd through a mic).
(Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina)
It was one of those virtuosic displays where I could 'feel' her moving through timbres, moods, approaches while never sounding like anyone other than herself. An astonishingly beautiful sound, but totally wedded to a complex characterisation. All sides of the same voice.
That said, in Kosky's powerful and moving interpretation of the opera's close, Agrippina has achieved all she set out to achieve, so falls silent. JD also moves brilliantly here, slowly withdrawing into what looks like the smallest chamber in the set, and sits quietly, her expression almost unreadable as the blinds draw in front of her. This could perhaps foreshadow her real-life fate, eventually falling victim to the absolute power she helped her son attain. But I also felt that to see her fade vocally as well as visually drew a melancholy line under her 'my work here is done' triumph. (It reminded me a bit of a reverse version of the way 'Billy Budd' closes: the entire orchestra drops away, leaving Vere to make his final remarks unsupported, truly alone in the universe.)
Onto ‘The Intelligence Park’ a couple of nights later. Quite a contrast. I’d come across Gerald Barry’s work once before at a Barbican concert of his latest opera, ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ (coming soon to the ROH in a full staging). It was fun, fast, at times seeming like actual bedlam, bordering on collapse. And what do you know, back in 1990, he was conjuring up something equally frenetic for his first foray into the genre.
To be clear from the outset: I enjoyed this, and got a lot out of it. But it’s not for everyone. We lost some folk at the interval (by which I mean they left - the opera didn't actually kill them). It would be very easy to point at a lot of the action and say, ‘Well - this is just crazy.’ It is certainly breakneck and largely unhinged. But for accuracy, it’s something more than mad: madcap, I would say, and at times maddening.
There is a plot in there. The 1750s: The composer Paradies is struggling to write an opera, featuring a pair of lovers, Daub and Wattle. At the same time, his personal life is a tad complex: he’s about to marry into a wealthy family, but instead both he and his fiancée fall for her castrato singing teacher. She elopes with the singer - so, as fact and fiction blur in Paradies’ mind - Daub and Wattle come to life, merging identities with the couple until some kind of equilibrium can be restored. (I think, though I can't be sure, that the 'Intelligence Park' of the title might refer to how the characters and events of the opera 'play out' in Paradies' head.)
However, the language in Vincent Deane’s libretto is wilfully flamboyant and obscure (I understand he’s an authority on Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’, which would go some way towards explaining a love of language and verbal sounds for their own sake - not to mention a resistance to plain English). Barry’s score seems to place almost impossible demands on the singers: sky-high passages for everyone, whatever their register; huge interval leaps; nightmarishly fast sections that stop and start unexpectedly, sometimes mid-word... and of course, the orchestra are manically keeping pace with all this.
(The cast - production photos of 'The Intelligence Park' are by Clive Barda, from the ROH website)
I was trying to work out the reason for it all. Certainly in this work, the themes include mental instability and creative block, so for the score to sound like an opera falling part would fit. And maybe these features of his style remain because of his attraction to zanily surreal subject matter (Wilde as well as Carroll).
While it can sound all over the place, it is not a mess. In fact, the further on we get in the opera - as events begin to coalesce - there are moments of slower-paced calm and harmony, throwing the mayhem that precedes it into relief. There clearly is a grand plan. I wonder if it's primarily meant as 'extreme opera', and you either throw yourself into it, or you don't. For example, every genre has its outer reaches: not all metal fans want to push it as far as, say, grindcore (bands like Napalm Death and Nasum - very heavy, VERY fast); not all jazz fans head straight for the totally free, atonal stuff. But some do, wanting to test the music and test themselves. If you have an appetite for that, 'The Intelligence Park' might be the sort of opera you're looking for.
As an extreme music lover, I think that's the main reason I had a good time. And the performers were equal to the work's demands: Jessica Cottis conducting London Sinfonietta - and a company of soloists who at times seemed almost superhuman in their valiant attempts to bend their voices around Barry and Deane's traps and obstacles. (Special mentions for Adrian Dwyer's arch companion D'Esperaudieu - at times the still point of the opera and our one-man chorus - and Rhian Lois and Patrick Terry as the lovers, wringing emotion out of warp speed lines.)
(Adrian Dwyer as D'Esperaudieu)
The staging itself was garish and the production hyperactive, as though it was felt necessary to match the intensity of the words and music. As an assault on the senses, this was right on the money, and it had a powerful impact. Deep down, though, for wholly different reasons, I wondered if it would've benefited from a touch of the restraint shown in the production of 'Agrippina' - whether dialling it down just slightly would have made it easier to handle and process the aural attack.
But I can hardly complain. Seeing these productions just two nights apart was as handsome a reminder as any of the sheer variety and richness available in the one artform.