Given that Handel's Agrippina at the Barbican last night was billed as a “concert performance”, there was an awful lot of acting going on. There were music stands and the singers carried scores, but they barely glanced at them: Joyce DiDonato’s glasses served less as a reading aid than as an offensive weapon to be jabbed threateningly at Agrippina’s (many) enemies. All of which went to illustrate the heart of the matter: Vincenzo Grimani may have been one of the only opera librettists in history to hold a religious office as high as Cardinal, but that didn’t stop him having a wicked and decidedly secular sense of humour and the text of Agrippina sizzles with ironic wit.

Joyce DiDonato (Agrippina) © Richard Young
Joyce DiDonato (Agrippina)
© Richard Young

The whole cast revels in it. Agrippina isn’t a comic opera as such – we’re talking about foul deeds and skullduggery at court – but the empress of the title is so barefaced in her deceitfulness that we cannot help but laugh, never more so than when she promises love and riches to her two courtiers Pallante and Narciso: singing precisely the same line of recitative to each in turn, but with the names changed.

There probably isn’t a more technically accomplished mezzo than DiDonato currently on the planet. The voice is so completely solid: she can move between near-whispered pianissimo to Met-Opera-House-filling thunder at any point in her range or while shifting rapidly through it, at slow-breathed legato or quick fire coloratura, never losing the flow of a phrase. It’s impressive to listen to, but more impressive still is seeing the freedom that such technical confidence gives her to enjoy the theatricality of the role and react to her fellow singers.

Franco Fagioli (Nerone), Xavier Sabata (Ottone) © Richard Young
Franco Fagioli (Nerone), Xavier Sabata (Ottone)
© Richard Young

The other cast member who can turn on the coloratura fireworks was countertenor Franco Fagioli as Nerone. The experience is more mixed here: Fagioli thrilled with his execution of the high speed runs with power and precision of pitch and he entertained with his über-camp portrayal of Nerone as a spoilt mummy’s boy. But Fagioli can choose many different timbres and the principal one he chose for Nerone was quite hard-edged. It was exciting, it was impressive, it could be funny, but it wasn’t all that attractive to listen to.

Of the four men who are objects of Agrippina’s intrigues, none are destined to win prizes for street smarts. Her husband, the emperor Claudio, spends most of the evening in a general state of befuddlement, but still finds room for the odd knockout bass aria: Luca Pisaroni gave us delicious warmth and cantabile line in “Vieni, o cara” and vigorous bluster in “Cade il mondo soggiogato”, although its initial low D was a stretch. The other bass, Andrea Mastroni, impressed as the courtier Pallante with a tightly focused and flexible voice, creating a good double act with Carlo Vistoli’s Narciso.

Luca Pisaroni (Claudio), Elsa Benoit (Poppea) © Richard Young
Luca Pisaroni (Claudio), Elsa Benoit (Poppea)
© Richard Young

Clad in a striking scarlet ball gown and making frequent use of an arched eyebrow, Elsa Benoit looked every inch the temptress, giving us winning smiles and pretty timbre. Her highlight of the evening was “Bel piacere e godere fido amor” as she is charmingly reconciled to her lover Ottone. Countertenor Xavier Sabata struggled to achieve the power to excite in the faster passagework, but came into his own in the more lyrical moments. When things are at their most bleak for Ottone, “Voi che udite mio lamento” was sung with beautiful diction, feeling and purity of timbre: one of two arias to serve as a duet for voice and oboe, providing one of the evening’s opportunities for Maxim Emelyanychev and Il pomo d’oro to show their virtuosity.

Freia’s golden apples had the gift of breathing life and vigour into the Norse gods. This golden apple breathes life and vigour into music. The Handelian orchestra isn’t complex enough to match the colour palette of later composers, so the task at hand is to create colour through phrasing and accenting and – particularly for early Handel – to allow the renaissance dance rhythms to shine through. Il pomo d’oro accomplished this with panache: the three time lilt that accompanied “Ogni vento” was particularly entrancing amongst many examples.

In the end, though, the evening belonged to DiDonato, for her technical mastery and flair for the perfect balance of seriousness, comedy and irony. “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” was probably one of the best performances of a rage aria I’m ever likely to hear and in Act 3, her recitative maternal telling off of Nerone set the seal on a memorable performance.

****1