We were promised Agrippina as House of Cards, full of intrigue and political machinations, yet Barrie Kosky plays his joker frequently in a staging which borders on farce. On an austere set, he vividly brings Handel’s characters to life – sometimes as caricatures – as Agrippina schemes to manoeuvre her son, Nerone, to the throne. Premiered at Bayerisches Staatsoper in July, Kosky’s production arrives with three cast members – Franco Fagioli, Iestyn Davies and Gianluca Buratto – but with a new leading lady and chief schemer, Joyce DiDonato, who delivered a knockout performance in an evening of mixed success.

Joyce DiDonato (Agrippina) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Joyce DiDonato (Agrippina)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Having received (fake) news of Claudio’s death, Agrippina convinces those around her that her son, Nerone, should succeed her husband as emperor. She plants the seed in the mind of Nerone – a tattooed teen cocooned in a hoodie – that he’s prime candidate for the post and masterminds a media-friendly campaign which sees him blinged up, reaching out to the “poor people” in the Stalls. Kosky loves irony. Agrippina then has to adapt her plans when it turns out that Claudio did not die in a storm at sea – a massive spoke in her wheels – but was rescued by Ottone, to whom Claudio has promised the throne as his reward.

Ottone confides in Agrippina – always a foolish move – that he is in love with Poppea, which opens up a new scheme whereby Agrippina can play off Ottone against her husband, who lusts after Poppea himself. Throw in a plan to marry off Poppea to Nerone and it all leads to a farcical scene where Poppea “entertains” her three suitors simultaneously, with much diving behind the sofa or hiding behind the cocktail bar. Accusations fly, scheming is avenged… yet somehow Claudio offers Nerone his throne, whilst Poppea is married off to Ottone. Mission accomplished? Well, Agrippina has got her wish, but Kosky’s ending – not to the usual Gigue, but a slow movement from L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – suggests an emptiness, loneliness or a lack of purpose.

Iestyn Davies (Ottone) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Iestyn Davies (Ottone)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Rebecca Ringst’s set is not unlike the Don Giovanni contraption currently in use here; a revolving building – though minus video projections – which clunks around, framed in metal and coldly dressed with Venetian blinds, noisily motor-powered. Whereas the auditorium in Munich’s Prinzregententheater isn’t a classic horseshoe, Covent Garden is and there were times when I wondered just how much – or how little – those seated at the sides of the house could see as the cast navigated the rotating set. And Kosky’s staging involves a lot of movement. Characters are rarely still, having to calculate mid-phrase what they need to do next, who to grope, which steps to clamber up or down. A little stillness would go a long way. There was a restless approach in the pit too, Emelyanychev driving the brilliant OAE hard, challenging the singers to find room to breathe.

Joyce DiDonato (Agrippina) and Franco Fagioli (Nerone) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Joyce DiDonato (Agrippina) and Franco Fagioli (Nerone)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Mocking, Machiavellian, manipulative, DiDonato’s Agrippina dominates the stage from the start, a series of side glances at the audience giving away her ambitious plans as she pits characters against each other. She even gives conductor Maxim Emelyanychev his cues and interrupts Poppea mid-da capo. Vocally, she was on outstanding form, zinging coloratura runs tossed off with ease, a vast range of colours, particularly in her chest notes. Her Act 2 aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormenti” was particularly stunning, bending her long opening note achingly, beautifully echoed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s oboe. And DiDonato got to wear some absolutely fabulous frocks, plus a Norma Desmondesque turban.

Lucy Crowe was equally wonderful as the preening Poppea, her soprano agile and florid, revelling in her role as temptress. Iestyn Davies' gorgeous, plangent tone impressed, especially in “Voi che udite”, where Kosky’s splits Act 2 for the single interval. Andrea Mastroni’s resonant young bass made much of Pallante, while Eric Jurenas’ soft-grained countertenor made for an easily manipulated Narciso, stuttering his desires.

Lucy Crowe (Poppea) and Franco Fagioli (Nerone) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Lucy Crowe (Poppea) and Franco Fagioli (Nerone)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Franco Fagioli’s countertenor is an acquired taste and there were clearly plenty who enjoyed his performance more than I did. It’s a plummy voice which hoots with a peculiarly laboured coloratura. He camped up Nerone to perfection, though, clearly teetering on the brink of madness. Gianluca Buratto’s booming bass lacked nimbleness or suavity as Claudio. I’ve enjoyed him in non-Baroque repertoire, but a greater technique is required for Handel.

Ultimately, Kosky’s busy staging has much to recommend it, particularly the way it shows Agrippina manipulating the rise and downfall of other characters. Is this how political allegiances are struck today? As Francis Urquhart, Prime Minister in the original version of House of Cards, would say, "You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment."

***11