I was not sure whether I felt like getting excited about this production or not. On the one hand 1) Veronique Gens and 2) Philippe Jaroussky in an alarming wig. On the other, this is one of those Handel operas that for whatever reason has yet to climb very far up my all time favorites list.
The production is a weird mixture of buffa and abstract. The characters all sport technicolor eighteenth-century costumes with bright pink or red or green wigs, and lots of makeup. They are a sharp contrast with the stage, which is mostly empty except for a series of gray blocks of various sizes and orientations, which serve as beds, chairs, barriers, and so on. There are also additional figures, clothed in plain beige outfits that vaguely reference the eighteenth-century costumes of the characters (e.g. they lace up the sides). These figures stand on blocks as statutes to be manipulated by Agrippina and others; they escort characters in and out; by the end, they sit around on the floor watching the action. They aren’t the Roman crowd (the closest approach we get to that is the orchestra, various members of which get a little tip during the scene where Nero, to court popularity, distributes money to the plebs) and their movements in and out of participation the action suggest a commentary on all the various attempts to lie and manipulate (and secretly observe) that form the opera’s story. It’s as if the story takes place not amid an empire but within a little interpersonal space both small and fairly empty.
Jaroussky’s Nero is worth the price of admission; there was also some nice countertenor singing from Thierry Grégoire as Ottone (though at one point, some ornaments that required wide jumps in pitch devolved into something that rather resembled yodeling). I often wish that basses would go away; I did not wish that Bernard Deletré (Pallante) would go away. That said, I was hoping to be more impressed with Gens as Agrippina than I was. There was nothing technically wrong with the singing, but I couldn’t get into it somehow. I suspect that Agrippina can be quite the character – she certainly was in real life – but whether it’s the opera or the performance, she isn’t really in this case.
Or, maybe I need to give the Handel operas a rest and move on to something else for a while.