Maybe because she comes from Argentina, director Lillia Groag was able to portray the rotten charm of corruption without falling either in the trap of moralising or draining away the nastiness to make it funny. But that does not explain entirely the success of the New York City Opera production of Agrippina – Ms. Groag is a brilliant director for actors, making the cast not only act with unfailing comedy timing but also in an uniform coherent stylistic approach. It is only a pity that she could not get better set and costume designers. The gowns seemed to belong from styles ranging from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, while the sceneries had a certain 1970’s approach to classical stylisation. I can hardly see how this could work – and the immediate impression is that the whole thing looks dull and kitsch. When it comes to Agrippina’s costumes, they were often plainly speaking ugly – and this was particularly harmful since Nelly Miricioiu is some decades older than the caracter as portrayed by Grimiani. The audience could feel puzzled by the fact that this frumpy old lady was getting so much attention. That said, an alluring voice could have done the trick, but I am afraid those days are over for Miricioiu.
The Romanian soprano’s middle voice has become rather colourless and not entirely connected to a juiceless low register – and her top notes are invariably hooty. A random approach to pitch allied to clouded diction resulted lifeless recitatives – and one knows how recitatives are important in this of all operas. Considering this singer’s past achievements, it is sad to realize only her intense acting and ease with passagework survived her bel canto days. Next to her, the beautiful Heidi Stober sounded even more pleasing than she naturally is. Her lyric soprano is creamy and flexible and she has feeling for Handelian phrasing. Only her top register still neeeds more freedom and smoothness. If she succeeds in rounding up this problem, she will certainly go places.
In the role of Nero, the aptly androgynous and really young-looking Jennifer Rivera caused a flashing impression with her warm mezzo and impressive coloratura. She definitely belongs in this repertoire. David Walker’s gentle countertenor worked to perfection in Ottone’s laments and arie d’affeto, some of the best moments in the afternoon. João Fernandes’s knowledge of baroque style and resonant low notes helped him to create the necessary gravitas for his Claudio, but his ascents to high notes were often woolly. Marco Nisticò was a forceful Pallante and David Korn’s countertenor has particularly velvety top notes.
Ransom Wilson offered a reliable if quite monochromatic view of Handel’s multi-faceted score (edited for the theatrical purposes in this production). His orchestra had a shaky start but raised to the occasion during the performance.