Presidential Pool Party: “Agrippina” at Theater an der Wien

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[All the Patricias for President. – Patricia Bardon (Agrippina), Damien Pass (Pallante) and Tom Verney (Narciso) in Handel’s “Agrippina” as staged by Robert Carsen, Vienna/TADW 2016. – Photo Credit: Werner Kmetitsch, via TADW]

It’s a big election year, so “Agrippina” should be on a lot of schedules. Carsen’s take is a fun night, reviews and audiences overall seem to agree on that: the 3 1/2 hours pass quickly, the evening is fast-paced and well-crafted and – this is Carsen – aesthetically pleasing. On that note, the amount of nubile flesh in swimsuits is remarkable. For me, it also pointed towards a surface focus that went past the extras. The evening lacked bite on one side (some reviews linked it to “House of Cards”, but while it shares the contemporary politics set-up, it never manages to be truly sinister), and sincere, heart-felt depth on the other. It’s “Agrippina”, so if course it’s satirical fun, but the Ottone storyline e.g. can ground that (in the 2009 Zurich production by Poutney, even Agrippina herself, even Claudio, had moments on that side of the scales).

This “Agrippina” is easy and snappy and shiny, and it has a very attractive cast of in part very good actors/actresses. Could it have been more? With this cast, I think so. Of course Patricia Bardon chewing the scenery carries an evening, and easily so. But is that all there could be to “Agrippina”?

My view is tempered by my view, because I sat in one of the front boxes with limited stage sight (on the downside, I missed most of the pool sequence. On the upside, I could have ruffled the singers’ hair (chest hair, if we talk about the male singers) at times. Also, being seated in a place that offers a (still polite) view down Danielle de Niese’s neckline or up Patricia Bardon’s legs is not the worst situation in which a queer lady opera goer could find themselves. Not at all.

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What these front box seats also do is give you prime sight of the orchestra and the orchestra director. In the pit last night were the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Thomas Hengelbrock. Among my last concert experiences, quite a few were “modern orchestras/instruments that employ Early Music approaches”. Last night, I was three minutes into the performance when I thought “finally, a real Early Music ensemble again, Thank You” It is different. From where I sat a I had a stronger input of the string section and damn, that is whole-wheat and rye compared to white bread: not bratty or scratchy, but sinewy and flexible and with just enough structure to be not too smooth.

The most gripping moments (with the exception of Bardon’s handling of her coloratura because hot damn) last night happened in the pit: the orchestra all but dancing through Viva Nerone. The underlining of Poppea rejecting Ottone, and then leading into Ottone’s lamento (Voi che udite il mio lamento), the pulse, the sudden shifts of energy down to the most minute detail (my notes say “awesome”).  Still more with Ottone: the baseline and particularly the cello during Ti vò giusta is something you could play at a hipster party without changing one bit: it has drive, it has core, it swings, yet is as effortlessly cool as most hipsters never will be. On the same level: the baseline throughout the love duet (No, no, ch’io non apprezzo). Forget Ottone and Poppea, I would romance the continuo section instead.

Hengelbrock often lowered the volume, even just in fractions, to give the singers space, but one scene where everyone was allowed to unpack all they’ve got, and bring all the drama, was Agrippina’s Pensieri (because Bardon can level that. Oh yes): Wild, syncopated accompagnato accents, every single one precise as a knife, and then wild leaps and surges, and have I already mentioned I heart the string section?

Though my favorites – if I had to choose – would be the among the continuo group: the cellist, the lutenist and the theorbist, who did the bulk work during the recits and who was fantastic (and who, in the end, whipped out a chitarrone for the finale because of course he would). Extra mention to the harpenist, who did a great job of sizzling up Poppea’s soundsphere in particular.

You know it’s been a great continuo group at work when despite really good singers, they get the most applause in the end, and I am very happy they did. I’d pick that same seat again not for cleavage, but to watch those continuo wizards at work.

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[Who run the world…? – Patricia Bardon (Agrippina), Danielle de Niese (Poppea) in Handel’s “Agrippina” as staged by Robert Carsen, Vienna/TADW 2016. – Photo Credit: Werner Kmetitsch, via TADW]

The singers. Since I am actually writing papers right now, let me single out only five performances. First of, I enjoyed the Pallante of Damien Pass. His first aria was still a little stiff, but showed peaks of warmth already, plus the heft of a solid, but flexible core. It became more prominent as his singing progressed through the evening. He had to do a chunk of his singing topless and either under or atop Agrippina, and managed to pull off swim trunks and a whistle in addition, so props to that. I would love to hear him again in coming years in bigger roles and get another impression.

Overall, I do not know how this cast was assembled. The singers may not be ripped, but they are definitely trained. Nearly all of them. You’ve got Pallante, Narciso, Ottone and Nerone all set up to moonlight as swimsuit models for the summer catalogue on the side. You could turn this into an adult movie without even batting an eyelash.

Jake Arditti, whom I heard as Amor in the Monteverdi “Poppea” in the winter, has this time graduated to Nerone. Again, he gave a very committed performance with a lot of physical presence. His sound is not big (yet), and I found his first aria a little lackluster and thin. I was much more taken bis his Qual piacere a un cor pietoso, where the slower pace allowed him to shape the sound more and have his voice open up. Another singer where I am curious to hear where he will be in a few years, especially regarding his top register. He did not only convince in the slower pieces, though. Nerone’s showstopper is at the very end, the famous (and madly fast-paced) Come nube, and Arditti fully came through on that one (and rolled around the stage to boot). Even Hengelbrock smiled openly by the end of it, and they managed to keep the beat! Arditti has a good command over his coloratura – very fast or decidedly slow paces seem to work best for him for now. He also managed to work around a guitar and five bikini-clad extras for Quando invita la donna l’amante. His physicality stands out, and it carries over into his comedy timing. His surprising Poppea during II/12 (here at a pool chair) was one of the biggest laughs of the evening; the other belonged to him, too, in the wild crawl-and-chase in Poppea’s boudoir where he is at first amorous, then gets a damper (and tries to hide his boner. The two guys next to me were in stitches over his faces) by hearing about Claudio, and then is eventually found by Claudio.

Filippo Mineccia (Ottone) was new to me. Given the fact that my last Ottone was Mijanovic (*sigh*) I was somewhat hard to win over, but I truly enjoyed his performance. He does not have much power down the lower middle, and luckily he does not force it, but his upper half is well focused without any undue sharpness, and easily carries. His sound is not as smooth or supple as Sabadus or Jaroussky, neither has it the whiteness and purity of Scholl. He is closer to the Cencic/Mehta/Dumaux line, with more heft and the ability to support a dramatic attack, whcih he employs very well, as in his Otto, Otton, qual portentose fulmine è questi? (including Voi che udite il mio lamento). But also in the faster or quieter parts, he showed a really good handle on speed and coloratura on one side (every bit was under control there) and proved that he also holds his own in mid-tempo, mid-range  moments that do not offer great drama. His Vaghe fonti also stood out to me. (also, I may be queer as checkered flannel, but even I noticed he (he is short and wiry and trim) can wear skinny jeans nicely. The two guys next to me agreed).

Danielle de Niese was news to me insofar that I never heard her live before. I enjoyed some of her work beyond Early Music, I took note of her here and there, but she has never been someone wo particularly caught my ear or eye. Let me report back after her Poppea that she is very attractive onstage, and it is very hard not to notice that. Her last costume is a black dress that would do Sophia Loren proud and could probably cause a cardiac arrest or two (and she knows it). She also has an innate grasp of the energy in a room and channels it effortlessly. The way she half-flirts, half-pouts Claudio through her boudoir and never lets him gain the upper hand is like a signature tune for her stage presence. She has a sense of comedy timing (she and Arditti play well off each other during the hide-and-seek-and-seduce-but-not-quite).
Her sound, up close, is very interesting because it has, in how she shapes it, a lot of the lyric soubretta aesthetic of the late 50s and 60s – think Mathis, or Grist: She is very focused on a sweet sound, which leaves the borders of that sweetness as if padded in cotton. Never hoarse, but strangely muted. There is no unbecoming sharpness this way, but some spots seem not as focused as others.
Overall, despite her having done and doing a lot of Early Music, I hear her more as a classically trained singer of later repertory. Her take on coloratura is not something that comes out of an Early Music schooling (there were some coordinating issues with the pit at hand), I would guess, and the moment where her voice can blossom and show its beauty are generally those that allow for a higher intensity, pointing more towards later 18th century and belcanto. Take her Per punir chi m’ha ingannata: her coloratura was well-wielded there, and her open top notes were dazzling. That one, along with Chi ben ama, were for me her strongest moments this evening.

Patricia Bardon was my main reason to see the show as far as the singers are concerned (since there were no mezzos in pants to be had, with both Ottone and Nerone sung by countertenors). The role is a gift, of course, and Bardon sinks her teeth into it, both vocally and scenically. She has the experience and the vocal weight to carry the evening, and she does, from strutting around in a leather pencil skirt to scheming behind sunglasses to seducing followers in a swimsuit outfit. She is all in, and excels at it.
Her timbre – and since for parts of the evening, I could only hear, but not see the singers, I took a lot more note of it – is curious and could be describes as bordering on masculine, but we don’t buy into such notions, of course. It is rich and dark and plummy, and it is dense and powerful, at times sounding like a more dramatic countertenor. At one point, I found myself thinking: “She could sing her suitors in addition to her own role.” (and Narciso and Pallante were both well sung last night – Narciso a little pale at first, but then again, those are really young singers)
Even Bardon is aging, despite being at the top of her game now in knowing what she has and what she can do. There are a few sharpnesses to her voice – at the top, in navigating quick changes – that have appeared in recent years (as they do, on all voices), but her employment of her material is flawless. When Bardon gets to show off coloratura, it is another league. Even with two very good young counters flanking her: she owned it. That’s the point where I sat up thinking “yup, this is TADW Vienna, we are not kidding, this is the top of the tops and not some Stadttheater ‘you-tried’ level”.
Bardon has good stage presence and she uses that, and her voice, to maximum effect. Her Pensieri – good Lord, I thought the roof would come down. Actually, the only arias that were not sizzling completely were the calmer Se vuoi pace, which was hard to integrate into this staging either way, and Ogni vento was a bit wasted in between two beefy bodyguard extras and some put-on choreography. So, yes, she showed off breath control by partially singing it *on* said bodyguards, who acted as an impromptu Hollywood swing, but what does it add to the role? Overall, that would be my one point of contention: that the quieter sides came too short (though that is my beef with the staging, not with the singer). Bardon was at her best in scheming and dramatic outbursts, as a power-hungry matriarch, and when she got to employ comedy. She was energetic and engaging, yet I would have loved to see some layers beyond parody: towards more outward menace, and towards more reflection.
Then, of course, there are the moments that are the most enjoyable from a White Shirt point of view: like the moment where Agrippina showers Poppea with a new wardrobe, oversees her changing and then lounges on the chaiselonge while she looks at Poppea walking around in her new FM heels, all the while contemplating her like a dish that would definitely still fit in between Narciso for breakfast and Pallante for lunch.

The staging is littered with elite military types and trained youths in trunks, to a point where I found it distracting from the story and asked myself: Is Carsen having an Aschenbachian moment?
Carsen’s work is always pretty, sometimes too much so. It is always solid – this “Agrippina” could easily tour internationally and please for years to come – yet I find him at his most interesting when his aesthetic dovetails into a deeper exploration of humanity. In part, that happened in his “Alcina” for Paris, but more than that, I am thinking about his “Candide”, or his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Aix. In comparison to those two, the staging concept here reminded me of the “Madagascar” monkeys: Physically fit. Physically fit. Physically, physically, physically fit.

There are moments that could turn into more: The beggars Nerone feeds for the cameras turn out to be costumed socialites, who, as soon as the cameras stop rolling, pull off the threadbare coats and hats to reveal business haute couture.
And in the very end, after Agrippina has everyone where she wanted them, she is stabbed (at Nerone’s orders?) to death in the neck at the final Dolls & Debauchery celebration. She drops dead, and Nerone laughs maniacally. As the evening went, this bit felt tacked on, but going from that final moment, it could have been a more layered, more intriguing take on “Agrippina” overall. Also, given that moment, I now want Arditti as a menacing, troubled Puck in some Midsummer Nights’s Dream or other. Or as Oberon in about ten or fifteen years.

The staging seems to rely a lot more on blocking (this bit happens there, and during this bit, that happens)  than on emotion (this phrase causes that reaction, this touch of a hand causes the energy of the following line), which echoes the energy of this evening overall.

In summary, this “Agrippina” offers a fun night onstage, a more deeply engaging night in sound, with the orchestra really taking the cake, and I would like to buy that continuo group a round of drinks.

On the 29th, this “Agrippina” airs on Mezzo and Sonostream (and might appear in the usual places on the web – not sure about the Opera Platform or Arte Concert, fingers crossed for YT). Recommended for a Handelian night on the town with a martini in hand.

22 thoughts on “Presidential Pool Party: “Agrippina” at Theater an der Wien”

  1. looking at the photo of your view and i thought *wow*, PERFECT! and indeed, many many thanks for suuuch great detailed descriptions of the orchestra’s sound, i absolutely love it (was drooling a bit reading!) With “Agrippina” they can put in all CT and you can still have plenty motivation to go to because first and foremost a reigning mezzo and another strong female character in Poppea and their constant interactions (and Händel). In that particular it’s most rewarding when you get to see something developed a bit deeper for these two than just on the surface :-). Reading this makes me wish i get to her P.Bardon in this role! I have very limited chances so far (should go back to that Alcina in Moscow..).
    For some reason I never quite understand the fit of “Se vuoi pace” musically/contextually. Again due to my ignorant way of never quite reading the libretto properly but only listening.. But i think one day it will sort itself out in a staging that will suddenly make sense to me (am typing and crying over missing Zürich.. with all the “related posts” right under this..)

    (all the Patricias for President, YES!)


    1. I checked back with the Moscow “Alcina” (and may have has to listen to some Morgana/Bradamante) and she has some slightly out-of-sync coloratura in Vorrei vendicarmi there, but last night, she was spot on. You could also tell that Hengelbrock was really focused on that, too.



  2. Lucky you to have heard this life and let’s hope it will be on YT. I agree about ‘real’ early music ensembles! And unfortunately, once you have known the ‘real thing’ there’s no going back, so I also agree about ‘Stadttheater’ (not only with regard to early music). It may sound arrogant but for operas I know well and love I rather skip productions at the local theatre because it can really hurt. Better to travel from time to time….


    1. Traveling, if possible – or heart those opera houses and festivals who air their productions online!

      I will defend the Stadttheater, though. I think it is a marvelous space, despite all issues, and it makes marvelous things happen.
      Granted, there are productions that make you go “Huh?”; or even “Dear God, no”, and there are those that make you go “Ouch!”, acustically, but I tend to love those, too: because trying a lot also means getting it wrong quite a few times, and that is okay, that is part of having this space.
      If you compare the international stagione business (6 times a year, about every 6-8 weeks, you get five nights of the same opera in a row. That’s your season) to the stadttheater repertory system (nearly 5 nights a week, every week, you get a a huge and varied repertory), the later is an embarrassment of riches. It puts a toll on singers and musicians, sure, and it includes some cutting corners. But from the perspective of someone who is living in a place and wants to see and hear many, many things and cannot afford to gallivant about the planet? It is a gift. Even when some things are way off and you wonder “who gave them that production? Who made the casting decisions?!”
      In that regard, and because I have done most of my work modestly medium-sized stadttheaters myself, I am the kindergarten mother who is championing horrible artwork: but it was done! And it was done with love!! (my issue is, accordingly, when things are not done with love and care)

      Early Music – you pointed that out – is a tricky business because repertory houses are not specialized in that, by default. But I have still heard some amazing Handel and Monteverdi nights in small houses, even Vivaldi, at tiems with Early Music directors conducting conventional orchestras (does it ultimately compare to specialized ensembles? No. But it was still very good and I am very grateful I was able to experience them), and with mostly classically trained voices fitting themselves into Early Music energy.

      Of course there should be festival travel, and artistically, nothing will match the specialists working their magic. Ideally, we would all have the time and the money to faint and swoon over the top of the tops in Beaune or at Aix, but for most of us, that is out of the question. So if a small local theatre puts on some Handel, I will still be excited.

      I think the stadttheater merits are bigger when it comes to mainstay repertory because even though there are awful things happening at times, you still have those ensemble casts who know each other well (and in my experience, that does make a difference), you have partial spaces for the up-and-coming, and you have so many chances, so many nights, for something wonderful to happen – and in my experience, that does happen (and I try to embrace the bad nights, too, if I can see that someone *tried*).

      This is just my perspective, of course (I understand your point about ‘the real thing’ – if I could choose between one Mitridate night a season or five mediocre Tosca nights instead, well… but I would still be grateful that there are those five Tosca nights). My position stems from my childhood and teenage and student experience of having had the chance of seeing lots of live opera, and most of it at least decent, and I feel very indebted to the system for that.


      1. Of course you are right and there can be great productions at small theatres, I even had very nice and inspiring evenings at school productions (lots of work done with love there). And I will also always be grateful for the Stadttheater of my youth (especially for this first Don Giovanni I saw several times)! There can be very innovative and creative stagings, too, my problem is usually more with the singers (although there can be very good ones of course) because here you inevitably start to compare. (Although, thinking about it, there are also performances by ‘top-range’ singers that just don’t work for me). Usually, the local theatre now works best for me with operas I don’t know so well, and I think it’s a good chance to get to know new (contemporary or rarely played) pieces. Guess I have just been too spoiled the past years and have to get used to Stadttheater again… What I really don’t like is the air of self-complacency often present here, but you have that with many things in provincial towns. With regard to early music, as you say, it can be nice played by conventional orchestras but it’s just not the same thing and I just love the drive of specialized ensembles (and there are so many good ones, and often very nice performances in the context of church music).

        Unrelated: I just found a streaming of Alcina from Teatro Real Madrid 2015 (and yes, I did get there because of Sonia Prina). I have only seen some bits so far, but I really like the couple Ruggiero/Bradamante here, with Christine Rice as Ruggiero. Interestingly the staging also uses a ‘theatre in theatre’ approach but otherwise I’m not so sure about it so far (lots of champagne glasses etc.).


        1. yes, church music! A very important point, and something that is affordable even in most smaller cities in much of Europe, I think.
          The singers are sometimes a casualty in the stadttheater system because even though many may have good voices, often they are stretched far beyond their comfort zones in casting. And I get livid when it comes to KBBs who systematically hire young talent, tear through their voices within two years, and then cast those singers aside and hire fresh meat.

          Alcina Madrid Prina streaming – WHERE? (if it is a link you can share)


          1. It’s paid streaming on the theatre’s website (5 Euro, worth it, I think). There’s a button called ‘palco digital’ and then ‘videoteka’. (spanish only). We talked about workout, well, directly in the beginning we see Prina lifting a not so skinny Morgana, thumbs up!


          2. Thank you! I didn’t realize the Real had started (paid) streaming, that is good news. Though some of it only seems buyable from within Spain?

            It’s far more reasonably priced than e.g. Vienna Stastsoper, too. They take 14€ for a single streaming (which brings me back to the pompous self-complacency you mentioned…)

            To me, it usually hinges on whether the file is downloadable, even if only for 24h timeframe, or accessible for a time period with multiple viewings, so I can take captures and go into details.



          3. You can definitely view it repeatedly (you create an account there and have to log in) but only via their website and I don’t know if this is for a limited time period.


    1. Thank you! Let’s hope everyone interested can get a shot at it (and cross out fingers for YT afterwards).


      (thank you, FF – no more hasty commenting on the bus. Oh dear. – Though if we had been talking about, say, that Geneva “Alcina”… well….)


        1. I am sorry! (I may harbor more rancor than I realized regarding that inexcusable waste of talent. I should not cause waste of coffee or hardware in addition)


        1. Thank you, I will read up on this!
          (with the Agrippina, since it is popular repertory, I count on the usual YT sources eventually, but this would be very valuable for the more obscure repertory)


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