The Zurich “Agrippina”: Impressions

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Curtain Calls, “Agrippina” in Zurich, 26.05.09. – Marijana Mijanovic, Anna Bonitatibus, Laszlo Polgár.

The May 26th “Agrippina”  – aka “The Night That Kasarova Didn’t Sing” – was fantastic anyway. Marijana Mijanovic in dress whites kind of makes you forget that there is anyone else supposed to be singing. Or breathing. Then Anna Bonitatibus redefines your heretofore decidedly limited concept of “coloratura” and just as you think you could die happily, Laszlo Polgar sings “Vieni oh cara” and you’re ridiculously happy that you didn’t die before you got a chance to hear that.

That’s the short version. Extended edition with more photos (in case of doubt, click to enlarge) after the cut.

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Due to congress dates, the only chance I had to catch the “Agrippina” was this past 26th of May, which meant “In The Absence Of Kasarova”. Greg, the lucky conference chairman, accompanied me. Due to extremely bad weather conditions, the planned pilgrimage was more of a “huddling in front of the entrance”, but I managed to keep the white shirt starched until we reached the 1st Balcony.

We had box seats, pretty central but 3rd row, which cuts off a good deal of the stage when you are sitting. Still, you can move the chairs a little after lights are out and doors closed, and you can also stand up in between as long as there is nobody in row 4 behind you – standing grants you full stage view. Prices were at a moderate 35CHFr; more than adequate for the seats we had. And for the singers we were about to listen to.

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The cast was – with the exception of Kasarova, whose part was sung by Alexandra Coku –  the same of the entire run, featuring Zurich regulars Marijana Mijanovic as Ottone, Laszló Polgar as Claudio and Eva Liebau as Poppea. Anna Bonitatibus sang Nerone; the smaller male roles were taken on by Ruben Drole as Pallante, José Lemos as Narciso and Gabriel Bermúdez as Lesbo. Contralto Wiebke Lehmkuhl had the final word as Giunone.

Marc Minkowski conducted the Zurich Opera Early Music Ensemble (yes, Zurich has an extra orchestra for such things), La Scintilla – the Scintilla that e.g. is also behind the recent “Sonnambula” recording with  Bartoli and Flórez. Apart from sounding great, they also look good: young, with a high percentage of female musicians and a dress code that clearly puts the casually sexy above the stiffly elegant.

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The most thankless task of the evening clearly went to Alexandra Coku who had to cope with the impossible task of replacing Kasarova. To top it off, it was her role debut.  “This is Zurich, last performance of the run and the part you’re singing has recently become the possession of Kasarova. See those singed curtains over there? Yep. But anyway, no pressure.”

Given the circumstances, Coku did a decent job and I give her credit for taking over at short notice (the previously announced Salome Heller was not singing) and under the looming shadow of one Miss K.

Coku, other than Kasarova, is a soprano, with lyric melos bordering on spinto in the upper registers. Greg told me she’d sung Marschallin in Bern two days prior to this Agrippina and it’s something I could see her sing more comfortably than Baroque repertory.

Agrippina, despite a few flights to higher planes, requires a lot of middle register, and middle register coloratura, which may be why it works so fabulously for mezzo sopranos, like Connolly in the ENO production, and now also for Kasarova.

Coku seemed to be understandably nervous at first; her sound was flat and somewhat dry during the first aria, with a choked middle register and coloratura that didn’t really start off, the way a lighter sometimes doesn’t go off when you try to get a flame in haste. Coku improved at large over the evening, though, and partially even managed to hold her own against the very strong Zurich cast (it’s Zurich, people. They have singers like Polgár even in the small roles. Whom are we kidding?).  The two strongest moments Coku had was the “Pensieri” in the slaughterhouse that gained in intensity and gave her free vocal and acting range especially in the upper register where her soprano gave her extra points. Sure, it sounded rather Verdian, but it was a moment of gripping theater (and the ability of doing both Verdi and Handel well is rare, if not physically close to impossible – I come up with Naglestad, and then I come up empty). The second high note was her final “Se vuoi pace” that she took on with a level that allowed her full control, but gave her a nice exit on a figurative high note. Well-deserved applause at the end that clearly weighed in the context of the performance.

Acting-wise, Coku was fine, although she may have studied the part from a Kasarova video, since many gestures or moved simple screamed “VK was here!” as if it had been spray-painted on the wall behind Ms. Coku. That said, the gestures didn’t look bad on Coku, just a little big at times – you know the sensation of moving in a coat that belongs to somebody who’s taller than you are and that seems to be smoothing itself to somebody else’s back even while you are wearing it? It was somewhat like that.

Of course, the constant thought of “Wow, that looks/sounds nice. – OH GOD, just imagine Kasarova doing that instead!” didn’t exactly help, but there were many instances of swooning by proxy. Imagine Kasarova doing the letter intrigue while getting a massage in the first scene. Imagine Kasarova doing the “Chin-chin & Choke” with Liebau’s Poppea.  Imagine Kasarova turning the slaughterhouse cows into charcoal-scorched dinner by sheer intensity. Imagine Kasarova next to Mijanovic in dress whites. Mijanovic… dress whites… wait, what was I talking about?

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As for the staging: I liked it. Pountney’s general style, reminiscent of Alden’s  Munich Handel productions,works a lot better with Handel than with the recent “Forza del destino” in Vienna. Pountney often tries to culminate a scene or a storyline in one poignant and sometimes over the top image and then relies on the rest falling into place around it. With the Passion, Crime and Politics backdrop of Agrippina, this approach works well. The opera can take it when sometimes a joke is more important than psychological credibility – that’s the joy of Baroque Opera and the narrative distance it keeps to itself.

A good production, in my book, offers the viewer an association space for new insights into the opera, entertains and gives its characters a context in which they make sense.

Pountney definitely achieved that. That his images – the Caesarian Laurel in the oversized syringe (is power hunger genetic? A drug? Does bloodline rules in opportunity?), the lab/pharmacy (love potions, the manipulations that can be done to the human mind and heart?) or the morgue with Agrippina scaring the dead bodies alive (only to have them stunned back into oblivion via Poppea’s hairdryer in the bathtub later) – sometimes have me draw a blank is part of the game. If my associative horizon worked exactly like his, I’d probably be scared, though I’m not sure whether of him or of myself.

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There’s one scene that takes place in a grass-green gym, which as a place of scheming and exhaustion seemed to be taken right out of Cukor’s “The Women” (1939) and which also offered some comedic staging of Rossinian proportions, when for example a line like “being a ball in the hands of fate” is illustrated by actual gym balls. Or when you have the protagonists bouncing on those same balls with the rhythm, having the momentum of the music shape the scene instead of the text.

The S/M images of muscled men in harnesses and a line of extras in fetish gear may not be to everyone’s taste, but they sure make sense as a framework in an opera about the relations between power and sexual attraction.

The revolving stage with its constant changes does fit in well with the still pre-seria construction that is “Agrippina” – less Metastasio, more Papal Court. The libretto wasn’t written by Cardinal Grimaldi for nothing!

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A fantastic visualization of the whole power/physicality/politics axis was the sequence with Agrippina (in a leopard fur coat, no less) in the cold white of a slaughterhouse, musing on her next move in the play of power while walking across the bloodied floor in between two beef carcasses. That she later has Narciso and Pallante hunt the other down with an ax and a motor saw in the same environment fit in seamlessly.My favorite setting, however, has to be Poppea’s bedroom –  a scenery that Pountney ironizes by filling the whole compartment of the revolving stage reserved for it with an enormous blanket depicting a blue sky and clouds, under which, at some point, all three men and the woman they chase after – Poppea – fit in a hilarious game of blindman’s buff. A couple of giant stuffed toys – among them a hare, a canary and a blue gorilla – complete the image and illustrate Poppea’s blend of naivety and manipulation in a tableau vivant of shrill cuteness.

And after Poppea, the servant Lesbo, the amorous Claudio and the even more amorous Nero have already lost themselves under the blanket, the heretofore motionless stuffed animals chime in and move along. It’s a hoot.

But of course, at the point I was already distracted by Ottone (Mijanovic) stripping down from uniform coat to tank top. And by admitting that, I’m probably the next one to be chased down by a giant stuffed canary.

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There were things offstage that were worth a look as well (sadly, no further white-shirted Eye Baggers in sight that night), like the view from the 2nd Balcony terrace, but since it was still pouring, we had to imagine the lake in the distance as we stood getting drenched even while pressed against the wall in our back.

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Being worth a look II – here’s one more reason to LOVE La Scintilla:Female members of the string section playing the evening in a tank top! Weeeeeeeeow!!! (sorry for the blurry photo,  but I kept the flash off throughout)

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Onto the favorites.

First of all, there’s Eva Liebau as Poppea (initial casting still said Malin Hartelius, but both Greg and I agreed that Hartelius would have been too much Contessa range for this production).You still hear a bit of Papagena in her sound (she’s been promoted to Pamina this season) and I mean that in the best possible way – she has the physical and vocal agility and the high, bright and pearly notes on top of a still slender voice that make this Poppea a delight to listen to. And to look at.

In between throwing tantrums while bathing in a bikini AND singing coloratura at the side, Liebau is at the top of her game – shaking water out of your ear with trills? Genius. Trying to get Ottone out of his reserve while pretending to be asleep, but of course speaking up “in sleep” at the right moments? Perfectly timed. And the line of “Leave me alone!” while jumping on top of him was probably the biggest laugh of the evening. Poppea and her army of stuffed animals  – bubbly like the champagne she shares with Agrippina – are a force to be reckoned with. Too bad Handel and Grimaldi didn’t write a sequel – “Poppea ossia l’altra Agrippina”. But who knows what Bartoli will unearth on her new Antonini disc…

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A few words need to be said (even though they can hardly do him justice) on the smoothest, most single-maltiest bass on earth. Whatever Laszlo Polgár sings, he sounds noble. Well, unless he sings Leporello (between him and Bartoli’s Elvira and the push-and-pull physicality of Gilfry’s Giovanni, get the DVD!), then he sounds like darker single malt. Which is still kind of noble, in a criminal kind of way.

When I looked at the photos in preparing this entry, I realized that Polgár has to be older than I thought, which only adds to my admiration – to sound like that at his age is even more amazing. His Emperor Claudio sounds a lot less sleazy simply because you don’t think someone producing such a warm, refined sound could be sleazy at all. Even if he is chasing after a soprano half his age (or less).

Already the first Claudio scene, a dreamy sequence of the Emperor chasing butterflies in slow motion, makes you want to ask Zurich opera to add lullaby music boxes to their shop assortment.

But the absolute highlight is “Vieni, oh cara” – Polgár sings it in a quadruple pianissimo that had the entire house hold its collective breath. He is cuddling up to the Smurf Monkey during it (as Poppea is fleeing out of range and has to calm the jealous Ottone underneath the blanket) who has since gained points on my list. Oh, lucky Smurf Monkey.

I can’t understand at all why there wasn’t copious applause after every of Polgár’s arias (are these people deaf?). And I think I reconsidered the thing with the music box. I want a stuffed little Smurf Monkey that plays Polgár’s “Vieni, oh cara” instead. Please, Zurich opera shop, make it happen. Just add it as an extra to the DVD.

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Then there was Anna Bonitatibus, regarding whom I only have one complaint to make: She didn’t get to sing nearly enough as Nerone.

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At the moment, you can still get a taste of her abilities, though, as gundrun74 has (for now) uploaded her  “Come nube” on YouTube. Which brings us right to the spectacular.

Nerone’s last two arias, “Coll’ardor del tuo bel core” and “Come nube” are coloratura-spiked frenzies. And boy, did Bonitatibus ever nail them, regardless of a lot of running and moving she had to do during both of them. Every note was sitting perfectly. Every. Single. One. You couldn’t hear register changes, or areas with less full sound or weaker middle notes. She was amazing.

And again, I would have wanted there to be much more applause. All the action during those two arias drew the focus away from Bonitatibus’ singing and resulted in her getting a lot less recognition than she should have.

Then, of course, there was the acting – and much stomping and running around in patent-leather black Doc Martens, and a whole new mezzo ability that I would like to dub “swagger while you lounge”. Yes, there was lounging. And singing while lounging. And it looked very, very good.

Bonitatibus was, in absence of Kasarova, the singer with the most intense physical energy on stage that night. She seemed to be bouncing off the walls, with a bit of young Marlon Brando bad boy attitude. Goes with the whole lounging and swaggering. And it was all the more impressive as both the program book photo (program book: 9CHFr) and the concert poster we saw in the classical music store before the performance look decidedly femme and altogether very different in comparison.

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 Due to my congress, I had to miss that Haydn Concert (I would have lined up in front of the door, downpour or not. Greg, too.), but there is a Bonitatibus Haydn disc fresh out – a disc that I want to own for its title alone : “L’infedeltà constante” (the joke may only work for Haydn opera lovers, but still…tehehee!).

Intense physical energy, a sense of humor and a spectacular “Come nube”? I only associated that mix with Malena Ernman until now, but Anna Bonitatibus has definitely gotten my attention. She goes straight on the mezzo list to send to the Santiago organizers for the Via Stellae 2010. And 2011. And 2012…

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Finally, Marijana Mijanovic. I had to put her last, or else the dress whites would have kept distracting me.

If Bonitatibus’ Nerone woke associations with young Brando, then Mijanovic’s Ottone – to stay inside the movie star metaphors – is old school in the best of senses. Dashing like Gable, elegant like Grant and with the lanky vulnerability of James Stewart.

In short, Mijanovic is a class act, and not just in the sense of stage physicality or looks, but also in performance ethics, since she agreed to sing the evening even though she was considerably indisposed. She was additionally weakened by some virus infection she seems to have been battling since before the opening night of “Agrippina” (something that might explain the mixed reviews she has received.) – the audience was informed that “her husband and little son and the nanny, too” were equally out sick (which tells us that last year’s lack of Mijanovic on the stage was probably indeed due to the suspected maternity leave).

It was one of those nights where you don’t want to see the assistant on duty step in front of the curtain and say the words “We have a problem.”

But he did.

And in the moment of silence in between, you could have seen the running commentary in my brain “please not Mijanovic…anyone but Mijanovic…” projected onto the curtain in bright neon letters.

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Unfortunately, the next words were “Marijana Mijanovic…”, but it was heartening to hear the collective sigh of disappointment echo through the house. This contralto does have her loyal fanbase, and she stepped up to the plate for them despite being ill enough to cancel.

Mijanovic’s was audibly not at her best – the intensity of her performance and the trademark ‘countertenor’ timbre of her voice were the same, but it was obvious that she had to restrain herself to make it to the end of the evening, pouring more energy into her large largo scenes and holding back on some  coloratura work, especially on runs she normally would have taken on more directly.

The slow “Voi che udite” was heartbreaking, and further framed by the frailty Ottone exuded during this performance.

Overall, Mijanovic’s voice was reacting more heavily (you know that feeling when, during a cold winter walk, your fingers don’t really react to the impulses your brains sends them like they usually do…?) so there was less flexibility than normal and less quick changes in color or dynamics, something she usually pulls off to a trademark T. But the evening showcased impressively how important arcs and musicality are when it comes to singing, and how far that can carry a good singer even if they are indisposed.

Needless to say, the house was very happy that Mijanovic agreed to sing regardless – after all, Mijanovic at 60% is still much better than most other options.

Afterwards, we made it to the stage exit just as Mijanovic left, but since she looked rather beat (and was already chatted up by other lesbians), I refrained myself to turning into starstruck fifteen-year-old again at a respectful distance. On a side note: it has to be observed that Mijanovic carries the dress sense and the class act air offstage, as well.

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All in all, a delightful evening, with definite hightlights in all the general leads (Bonitatibus, Polgár, Liebau, Mijanovic) – something you don’t get to say on that many nights or in that many houses. Kasarova was palpable even in absence and it stands to hope that I can check out the whole cast, and without nasty virus infections, in one of the upcoming seasons.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the DVD. And stalking YouTube for souvenirs.

11 thoughts on “The Zurich “Agrippina”: Impressions”

  1. Thanks Anik – brings it all back and then some! Isn’t it amazing that even without VK and with a seriously indisposed MM it still rocked! What a truly fabulous production, I hope to see it again some time soon!!

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  2. Awesome write up (as usual), Anik! Good to see you had a good show despite of the lousy weather, the pesky flu, and the absence of VK. 😀 Kudos to Alexandra Coku for stepping up to the formidable plate so well!

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  3. @Smorg: as long as there is a roof above Zurich opera (and even if there weren’t), I’ll enjoy every chance to get there!

    It helped to know about the VK absence beforehand, so I didn’t get my hopes up (although when that guy stepped in front of the curtain, I said to Greg “See, the replacement is out and they had to fly Kasarova back in, pleasepleaseplease…”

    Coku didn’t blow me away or anything, but given her “starting position” (waaaay at the back), I think she was a very good sport for taking on this gig at all. Who wants to be VK’s seconds? Nobody. And Coku still took it on and made it through all right.

    Oh, and the Bonitatibus Hadyn disc is on MusicMe in its entire glory and it includes Arianna a Nasso.

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  4. sob. this was in May 2009? more sobbing..
    i think i discovered operas in Aug/2008.. and still did not discover in time for this, woah..
    and can i be too wrong that indeed i saw VK in Barber of Sevilla in Apr 2009 in Wien? (ah ok, i take it back, i discovered operas in Aug/2009! just several months too late.. and saw her in Wien in Apr/2010.. am happy then that i caught her Romeo..)

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