This production of Agrippina is brilliant though it must be discussed on some details, which are no details actually, as we are going to see.
The music is definitely at its best. It is Handel in its flexibility, mobility, vivacity and diversity. Each instrument has its own soul and the souls can join, they don't get drowned in some mushy soup of homogenizing unity. What's more the conductor is very careful to make the instruments play with the voices in such a creative way that at times we have real duets and even echoing duets from one voice to one instrument. That game is even brought to the absolute acme when Narciso in his last aria goes down into the pit, sits at the harpsichord and accompany himself on it. That's brilliant, especially since the alto voice of the singer is a perfect echo of the pinched slightly bitter notes of the harpsichord.
If the music captured the perfection of Handel's baroque spirit and mind, the acting is also very good. The singers are never abandoned to their own singing. They are always doing something and that something has a meaning. Lesbo is the one who moves the furniture around in a set that is a big scaffolding construction in front of what could be the entrance of a palace. The scaffolding has several levels and at each level there are platforms with beds or sofas. This set is a very good idea since that gives verticality to an opera that otherwise might have been too flat, too horizontal. That also gives the possibility to have some actors at all levels and the lights then designate the one who is concerned by the scene, and the others can move in the shade of the rest of the stage
As for action, dressing and undressing is quite common all along, with Nerone at the beginning and then Claudio several times with Poppea, and Ottone with Poppea in this turn in an explicit scene that will just get rid of the direct benediction by Claudio at the end. They also have some kind of banquet when Claudio accuses Ottone of treachery and the banquet starts with a toast from Claudio to turn sour right afterwards with the accusation and the rejection of Ottone by everyone. The final scene, when Claudio finally yields to Agrippina after teasing her a last time with Ottone on the throne, he is playing dice or some game with Pallante and Narciso and sharing the money of the innings.
But though they have given Narciso's part back to a male alto, they did not go as far as going back to the original score. Nerone as a tenor appears as an older young man who is infatuated with his mother to the point of some incestuous attachment if not relation amounting to intercourse. He sounds and looks like a pervert and not what he is supposed to be a voracious, covetous, gluttonous, rapacious teenager just after puberty. Then the going back to his mummy to complain about Poppea who pushed him away is absurd and Agrippina's thrashing and chastising is impossible since the man is a man and not a child. At this moment he deserves a good spanking but he does not have the age and the voice any longer that would justify it. Then his conversion to power and his rejection of Poppea and love is artificial and superficial. That conversion should make him vicious for future times and it does not because of that voice and age.
In the same way Ottone should be a male alto, in Handel's tradition, because he is the military hero, but also in Handel's artistic vision, because he is also a younger man who is awkward and shy with women and who is timid with the emperor. Then his suffering after being rejected as a traitor makes him with his baritone voice and his young physique look like some kind of romantic Werther whereas he should look like a baroque hero suffering and enjoying his suffering, lamenting and enjoying even relishing in his lamenting. From baroque exquisite suffering to romantic wailing and whining, there is some kind of a treacherous deviation. And the last scene of undressing and love with Poppea then looks artificial. In many ways Ottone is one of these young courtiers who are trying to capture the beautiful young lady over there and who has to suffer to deserve her, though at times that young courtier might yield to the flattery of the king or duke or whoever who suggests power for him, in exchange of the beautiful eyes of the girl he has seduced. That is definitely baroque and not romantic.
But then the show itself is so beautiful that we let that treacherous twist go and enjoy the rest, including the romantic rewriting and its contradictions.
On the other hand the DVD is of course filmed. It remains an opera and the mental reflective distance necessary for proper reception is always present and we will regret a lot the fact that there are no Italian subtitles, which forces us either to follow on a printed libretto or to know or guess the text. This is awkward and definitely a shortcoming, and a very long shortcoming.
The shooting is quite volatile and flexible and that is good. The images are not inert and immobile, far from it. The angles are varied and the cameras are multiple. Fine. There are many close-ups and even very close close-ups and that is good to capture the expression of the faces and the feelings of the characters. Details are essential, though in the real theatre they evade you except if you have binoculars. Full stage pictures are quite systematically used to give a large picture of what is happening, especially since the stage is used vertically as well as horizontally and there are some extensions in or over the pit. In the famous scene between Poppea and Claudio with Ottone and Nerone hidden away, this production puts Ottone under the bed, which is very Hollywoodian, and Nerone in the pit, which is very expressive of the nuisance he is being to Poppea at this moment: in the pit with snakes of course.
The camera at the end gives a frontal image of Agrippina up at the top of the scaffolding and Nerone down on the stage sitting on the throne. This is symbolical and it needs to be given as a full picture and then the image moves from the top to the bottom and back to the top and then the full picture. This means a lot about the relation between Agrippina and Nerone. Unluckily it cannot reinforce the fact that when Nerone was thrashed by his mother he should have become a vicious angry young man who was probably already concocting in his mind the assassination of this domineering mother, since the scene leads us to contemplating a perverse rather young man who is infatuated with his mother to some kid of incestuous attachment. In the ending of this production he appears too much infatuated with his mother and drowning in his enjoyment of the throne. He is a satiated young man not the vicious per vers mind we know he is going to become, and one can only become what one is already potentially.
The last thing I would like to say is that this production uses cutting shifts from one angle to another, from one camera to another and from one distance to another too much. This production does not use zooming in and out enough and when it uses a zooming in movement it is maybe too slow, and there is no zooming out afterwards. What's more travelling does not seem to be an action the camera or cameras know how to do on this stage. And that's somewhat displeasing at times. The constant jumping from one short sequence from a particular angle, distance or camera to another short sequence from a different angle, distance and camera, and by short I mean at times very, very short, is not the best for an opera like this one. It is a typical TV or cinema technique, but here we are filming an opera for a DVD. The reception is neither that of a film in a movie theatre nor that of a TV show or series on a small screen in a drawing room. That use of cameras, angles and distances gives dynamism to the image and the film, but it slices the opera up too much. An opera needs some continuity in the filming of a scene or an aria, at least some stability of vision, and zooming in and out and traveling is a lot better provided it is neither too fast nor too slow.
A very good production that might have been difficult to watch in the opera house itself but it is rendered very well on the DVD in spite of some artistic choices at the level of voices and filming that maybe are drawbacks.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU