In the Met Opera’s ‘Agrippina,’ the Roman Empire Never Ended

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In the Met Opera’s ‘Agrippina,’ the Roman Empire Never Ended

Post by lennygoran » Sat Feb 01, 2020 9:09 am

We'll be seeing this in a few weeks. Len







In the Met Opera’s ‘Agrippina,’ the Roman Empire Never Ended

A contemporary-dress Handel production calls to mind “House of Cards,” “Succession” and your choice of rulers in the age of Trump.

By Michael Cooper

Jan. 31, 2020

What if the Roman Empire — with all its decadence, corruption and power-grabbing rulers left unchecked by an oddly docile Senate — never really ended?

That was the conceit that the Scottish director David McVicar used two decades ago, when he first staged Handel’s “Agrippina,” a black comedy about a mother’s Machiavellian machinations to make her son, Nero, the emperor of Rome, and set it in the present day.

Fast-forward 20 years, and Mr. McVicar is remounting the production at the Metropolitan Opera, which is staging “Agrippina” on Feb. 6 for the first time in its history as a star vehicle for the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. And he is discovering that conditions in 2020 may be more conducive to his vision than was the present day circa 2000.

“Of course, the political world is, if anything, even crazier, and in some ways closer to the brutal politics of ancient Rome, than it actually was 20 years ago,” Mr. McVicar said in an interview, citing the United States, Britain and Brazil, among so many convulsing countries.

When his “Agrippina” premiered in 2000 in Brussels, its first critics wrote that its power-suited cast called to mind politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Bill and Hillary Clinton, and television shows like “Dynasty.” Its Trump-era return suggests a different set of rulers — and programs like “House of Cards,” “Succession” and “Veep.” Its timeliness will be palpable at a moment when the classicist Mary Beard has written of how frequently she is asked “Which Roman emperor is Donald Trump most like?” and Edward J. Watts’s 2018 book “Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny,” is dissected for clues about the fate of representative democracy in the United States.

Ms. DiDonato, who sings the title role in “Agrippina,” said in an interview that parts of the opera felt as if they had come off the nightly news. “David, of course, had the instinct that this was a very modern piece,” she said. “And I think it amplifies the genius of the piece, and his production, that it’s even more compelling, and even more modern, in 2020.”

Some of the super-contemporary connections will be in the eye of the beholder: Much of Mr. McVicar’s original staging has remained the same for the Met’s staging, which will be conducted by Harry Bicket and also features the mezzo Kate Lindsey as Nerone (Nero, in Handel’s Italian), the countertenor Iestyn Davies as the army commander Ottone and the soprano Brenda Rae, in her Met debut, as Poppea.

But this “Agrippina” has inevitably taken on new meanings as the world changed around it. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, addressed the elephant in the room during a recent talk about the opera at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, an event held as the impeachment trial of President Trump unfolded in Washington.

“‘Agrippina’ is a dark comedy about the corrupt leaders of ancient Rome, who lie and manipulate in their quest to stay in power,’’ Mr. Gelb said.

The audience dissolved into knowing laughter.

“I should say that we’re grateful to the White House for making ‘Agrippina’ feel more immediate,” Mr. Gelb said. “We like to think of the impeachment trial as a co-promotion for our new production.”

It is difficult to look at the centerpiece of the opera’s set — a golden staircase leading to a golden throne — without thinking of the escalator in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, and the descent that ushered in the current political era.

Then there is the whole golf thing.

At a recent rehearsal in the basement of the Met, the bass Matthew Rose, playing the Emperor Claudius — yes, the title character of Robert Graves’s “I, Claudius,” whom Derek Jacobi played with a memorable stutter on television — began one scene by thwacking golf balls. The cap he wore was black, not red, and did not say anything about making Rome great again, but the sequence couldn’t help but conjure a certain American president who spends a great deal of his time on the links.

“We did that 20 years ago; that joke’s never gone away,” Mr. McVicar said of the golfing bit. “But it’s become particularly pungent right now.”

None of this is new for “Agrippina,” which has been about much more than ancient Rome since it was first staged in Venice in 1709.

“Even in the early 18th century, the piece was being used as a very thinly disguised satire on the state of Venetian politics,” Mr. Bicket, the conductor, said in an interview after leading a rehearsal from the harpsichord. “None of this changes: the way people lie to get into power, and lie even more to stay in power. How they use sex as a weapon. These are eternal truths. On it goes.”

Although “Agrippina” is set to become one of the oldest works in the Met’s repertory, Mr. McVicar said it never occurred to him to do such a modern-feeling piece in togas. His Roman Empire features homeless people pushing shopping carts; TV reporters; a lively bar scene; and a deranged Nero, consuming positively imperial amounts of cocaine.

Of course, it is not just politics that have changed over the past 20 years, but also fashion, technology and social mores. Keeping the production from turning into a period piece — albeit a very recent period — required some changes. The costumes had to be redesigned to reflect rising hemlines and modern-fitting suits; the hairstyles rethought; and technology introduced.

“We have a bar scene, and originally, in Brussels, everyone was sitting around talking to each other,” Mr. McVicar said. “This year, everyone’s either on their device or on their phone, ignoring each other.”

There have been more substantive changes, too. A scene in which Claudius chases his love interest, Poppea, was rethought to reflect the sensibilities of the post-#MeToo world. “It was too dark,” Mr. McVicar said. “It’s not funny any more: this nubile young girl being chased around an apartment by this elderly, very powerful man.”

So he tweaked the staging while trying to keep the mood comic by placing the emphasis on Claudius’s ridiculousness. Poppea’s characterization has evolved as well: “She now has to be much more assertive,” Mr. McVicar said. “Much more her own woman, and much less of the sex kitten that she was originally 20 years ago.”

The revival of mainstream interest in Handel and other early operas over the past 50 years or so has been one of the joys of the music world. But bringing these Baroque works to the enormous Met, which was designed — and supersized — for later operas, can be a challenge. The company did not stage a Handel opera until 1984, when it mounted “Rinaldo.”

Mr. McVicar said it was vital to keep the energy up for Handel to connect in a house the size of the Met; he had a big success when the Met staged his Bollywood-inflected production of “Giulio Cesare” in 2013. And Mr. Davies, the countertenor, questioned the idea that Handel works demand a special kind of intimacy.

“How many times do we have to be knocked over the head with history,” Ms. DiDonato said, “with the facts that are right before us?”Credit...Victor Llorente for The New York Times

“Your version of what you think is intimate is very different from what somebody in the 18th century would have thought intimate,” he said in an interview in the Met’s cafeteria after a recent rehearsal. “When they went to hear the ‘Messiah,’ and they heard the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, or they heard bits of ‘Saul’ with all those trombones, that is the loudest music they’d ever heard. There’s nothing intimate about that. That is shocking, and Handel was out to shock.”

“Agrippina” tells a story that unfolded in Rome nearly 2,000 years ago. It has been 311 years since the opera had its premiere, sending up the politicians of his day, and 20 years since Mr. McVicar created his production, which satirized a whole new age.

Now the story is being told once again, a darkly comic power grab that ends with Agrippina’s exultant final line that she can die happy now that she has ensured that Nero will rise to the throne — quite the punch line, given that he would go on to have her killed.

The suggestion is that the world has always been a bit craven, and a bit crazy.

“This, for me, is the genius of what I think opera can do better than anything, but what art is meant to do,” Ms. DiDonato said. “How many times do we have to be knocked over the head with history, with the facts that are right before us? As a society, we still don’t get it. We still don’t get it. So we’ll keep telling the stories until we get it.” ... opera.html

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