in: Reviews

March 15, 2011

Arias Provide High Points in Agrippina

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Poppea, soprano Kathleen Kim and Agrippina, soprano Caroline Worra (Jeffrey Dunn photo)

Having gambled (successfully, I am glad to say) on the little-known but masterful opera The Emperor of Atlantis by Nazi death camp victim Viktor Ullmann, which it paired with a premiere, Boston Lyric Opera chose to follow this program with a piece of proven success with audiences and critics in the U.S. for more than a quarter-century: George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina. BLO’s production has previously been seen at Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera, and if one could quibble at a number of Lillian Groag’s stage direction choices, there was no denying this presentation’s emphatic popularity with the audience at Sunday’s matinee performance. But for the performers to carry out the sometimes excessively busy staging, they first had to have solid mastery of the music’s very considerable challenges, and this cast and orchestra, uniformly strong musically and dramatically, succeeded admirably. The 24-year-old Handel was surely enjoying displaying his compositional talents and wrote an unusual number of arias to show off his instrumentalists’ and singers’ virtuosity and dramatic skills.

The opera’s plot concerns the machinations of the amoral Agrippina to have her son (from an earlier marriage) Nero succeed her husband Claudius as emperor of Rome. Vincenzo Cardinal Grimani contributed a fine libretto which made little attempt to stay close to the actual Roman events as his purpose was to attack, under the guise of comedy, the papal court of his and Handel’s time. This device goes back at least as far as Aristophanes but, in this reviewer’s opinion, does not offer the stage director unlimited license to insert physical comedy, even slapstick, at every turn. Much of this choreography was well conceived and executed smoothly, but not a little seemed over the top and at times threatened to distract one from the music and text. It is a credit to the singers and orchestra, stylishly and spiritedly conducted by Gary Thor Wedow, that such instances were fleeting.

Agrippina (Soprano Caroline Worra) punishes Pallante, baritone David McFerrin and Narcis, countertenor José Álvarez (Jeffrey Dunn photo)

In the title role, soprano Caroline Worra made the most of her juicy part, offering scintillating coloratura and a three-dimensional characterization of the emperor’s wife, by turns arrogant, scheming, and tormented by misgivings. As the emperor Claudius (Claudio), bass-baritone Christian Van Horn had a commanding voice and presence and made a delicious contrast between imperial majesty and comically thwarted Casanova. Soprano Kathleen Kim divertingly portrayed Poppea, the flighty object of the emperor’s affections as well as Otho’s and Nero’s, fusing the superficial brilliance of the music Handel gives her with her physical perkiness (in four-inch stilettos, no less!) to create the most multifariously comic character. Otho (Ottone), the sole character with unquestioned integrity, was convincingly rendered vocally and dramatically by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whether supplying the one truly tragic aria or later being straight man to Poppea’s gently comic antics. As Nero, David Trudgen’s forceful countertenor was used with skill and style in the service of broad comedy and vocal pyrotechnics; Agrippina’s son is amusingly portrayed more as teenager trying to be bad-ass (guzzling martinis and snorting cocaine) than the deranged monster he would later become as emperor.

As the two sycophantic freedmen, Pallante and Narciso, baritone David McFerrin and countertenor José Alvarez sang expressively even while making good use of their moments in the comic spotlight. As the more politically astute servant, Lesbo, David M. Cushing displayed an attractively resonant bass that made one wish Handel had written just a bit more for his character. The deft supernumeraries, who wore masks somewhat like commedia dell’ arte characters and put in more rehearsal hours than for any other in BLO history, ensured the smooth changing of the rather elaborate sets; these characters in black and were mute dramatic foils to the cast or interacted silently with them.

One was at times perplexed by the incongruity between sets and costumes, the former being evocative of ancient Roman architecture and the latter decidedly 20th-century American fashion, with nary a toga to be seen. The props as well were thoroughly contemporary, from the revolver that passes through three characters’ hands at various times to Nero’s martini mixer and glass. We get reminders at less than propitious times that the production is neither fish nor fowl. Also, though this is undeniably comic opera, one wonders if it is really intended to cross the line into farce; some of the staging is witty, some just plain silly. Having said that, though, I must admit that even some of the silly bits made me laugh, if a little guiltily.

Nerone, countertenor David Trudgen (Jeffrey Dunn photo)

In the end, though, the excellent performances are what stay most fixed in the mind. Musical high points for me included Agrippina’s first aria, I exult in the rage of the storm whose fearless brilliance evokes the character’s dauntlessness; Poppea’s bathtub aria admiring her pearls and flowers, with its playful chains of triplets and perky recorder obbligato; Nero’s stunning “storm” aria, Like stormclouds driven by the wind, when he decides to cut loose his desire for Poppea to ruthlessly pursue the throne; Claudius’s pair of come-hither arias in Poppea’s boudoir, turning from seductive to (unintentionally) amusing, as staged; and the genuine pathos of Otho’s tragic lament aria, sung most affectingly by Costanzo, after everyone has rejected him following Agrippina’s slander.

In essence, Agrippina is a fine entertainment, hardly needing outside enhancements to give enjoyment, but those that are added here, though at times excessive, are nearly all effective notwithstanding. One may classify bits of it as a guilty pleasure, but it is the pleasure that decisively wins out.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.

6 Comments

  1. I’m sure I speak for all of us involved with Agrippina (in this commentator’s case, as harpsichordist) in thanking Mr. Wieting for his thoughtful and enthusiastic review of the performance. The libretto is arguably the greatest Handel ever set, at least in the operas – at times witty, at times dead serious and – yes – genuinely farcical. The beginning of Act III is as hilariously funny as the armchair scene in Act I of Mozart’s Figaro. Stage director Lillian Groag’s negotiation of these constantly changing tones is masterful and I encourage those of you who are lucky enough to see it (and Mr. Wieting) to laugh and enjoy – without guilt!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — March 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm

  2. I have to agree with Mr. Wieting. The comedy did at times distract from the music. Further, how many times can a character feign impatience (tapping their foot, etc.) while the other singer completes a the da capo? It is slightly funny the first time, but by the fourth it just becomes old. Why distract the audience from such beautiful singing? Also, I felt that after Nero’s dark game of Russian Roulette in the first Act, the slapstick in the rest of the opera just seemed out of place…

    Comment by Joe — March 16, 2011 at 10:29 pm

  3. I was revived by this irreverent, brilliant production! Delightful staging, unapologetic characters- and I have to say AMAZING playng in the orchestra, especially from the oboeist! The aria Poppea sings when finally uniting with Ottone “Bel Piacere” I’ve so often heard sung by students was completely reinvented for me, and the unison playing with the band was impeccable.

    Comment by Jessica Cooper — March 16, 2011 at 11:46 pm

  4. The one problem I had was that, aside from Ottone’s great aria, the director didn’t allow me to connect with any of the characters until the start of the last act, when we finally focused on Poppea and Ottone. I think she mischaracterized Poppea earlier, when she is regretting her actions and wondering if Ottone still loves her. Instead of reaching us as a sympathetic and insecure lover, she was busy fussing with her tanning session and interacting imperiously with her servant’s application of lotions. We lost the moment when she should be establishing herself as half of the pair of lovers we want to see united.

    Still a fun evening overall, if only we could have pared away about a third of the “business.”

    Comment by Bill — March 17, 2011 at 9:50 am

  5. Marjorie and I thought that the production was absolutely brilliant. To be sure, it went up to the edge, but never over. The cast was also amazingly well matched and even: not a weak link among the many star roles; all were fabulous. (We adored them all, but Anthony Costanzo should perhaps be singled out for his second act aria. It was breathtakingly moving. What a suspension of time. What incredible phrasing.) But a review should also comment on Handel’s music, and the superb playing of the orchestra under Maestro Wedow! One of the greatest delights of the evening was to have been introduced to a light, humorous Handel, whose dance-like arias were a marvel to the ear: very different from the Handel of the serious oratorios. And then there was the proto-Verdi Handel in one of Agrippina’s arias in Act II: Simply amazing music, not to mention the chamber-music Handel in, say, the stunning violin duet accompanied aria by Nero in Act III, as well as the use of the Theorbo to add an “antique” air to the proceedings. Indeed, given the constraints of the accepted harmony, instruments, and orchestration of Handel’s time, it is utterly astounding what a range of emotions he was able to convey. And conveyed they were, by one of the best assemblage of instrumentalists for opera we have heard ever in Boston. The BLO, and Boston, should be very, very proud of what was done tonight.

    Comment by Lawrence Franko — March 23, 2011 at 12:29 am

  6. This Handel opera doesn’t yet grace my shelves. It will. I plan on getting the Gardiner performance, unless I’m advised otherwise. This was the first time I heard this work. Staging and scenery, appropriately yet not slavishly reminiscent of ancient Rome, wavered between realistic and stylized. A huge marble head peered out at the audience, in front of an azure sea and sky, while Malevich-like black squares or a huge arboreal oil painting slid across the stage. Masked commedia dell’arte figures in black doubloons posed, flirted, moved scenery, and otherwise enlivened the marmoreal setting. It basked in Mediterranean light. I could smell the sea.

    But all is not well, Malevolent characters walk this stage and manipulate each other to their own selfish ends. First of all is the eponymous Agrippina, mother of Nerone (Nero), who takes advantage of the news that her husband, Claudio (yes, THAT Claudius) has been drowned on his return voyage, to have her son proclaimed Emperor. Further news, however, arrives that Claudio is alive, having been saved by Ottone, and that Claudio has picked Ottone as his successor. Ottone doesn’t want the throne; he wants Poppea (yes, THAT Poppea). So does Claudio, actually. So Agrippina devises a cruel plot. She convinces Poppea to believe that Ottone would cede her, Poppea, to Claudio in return for the throne, and urges Poppea to tell Claudio that Ottone has ordered her to rebuff the Emperor and give herself to him. So by the end of the day, Agrippina’s machinations have made poor Ottone the bad guy on the block. He’s a new pariah, the outcast, the hated one of Poppea and Claudio. Claudio denies him the throne. Poppea gives him the cold shoulder. Agrippina is on a roll. The rest of the opera resolves this mess to a happy conclusion. Agrippina’s scheming is revealed, Nero is discredited from the throne, and Ottone named Emperor for the job. He refuses; all he wants is the now-willing Poppea. So, poor Claudio gathers everybody around. To the opera’s one real chorus of massed principals, he approves the marriage of Ottone and Poppea and, albeit reluctantly, declares Nerone the new Emperor. (Let us not dwell on the result of THAT decision.)

    Plots like this fill the annals of Baroque opera. Characters are there on the stage to give and receive well-aimed arrows of love and spite, support and denigration, all in the recitative-fed service of arias, music designed with the singers’ strengths and weaknesses in mind. When the music is great, it does more than advance the plot and display the character. Such is the central aria of Ottone, coming onto the stage, stripped of dignity and esteem, to limn a tragic lament on his situation the more ravaging for its unjustness and un-deservedness. Everyone has rejected Ottone, the only good person in town. When he slinks from the shadow, alone, perplexed and despairing, to sing his aria, we’re about to hear something unlike anything in this opera we’ve heard before or will hear to the end. This aria, “Vol che udite il mio lamenti”, sucks everything into itself, even what’s yet to happen. It’s the opposite of a black hole; it’s the white light of searing emotion, which spills out into the dark plaza and among columns hiding the duplicitous and the manipulating. There is much fine music in AGRIPPINA. But we know something is coming, something truly amazing, when Ottone stumbles, stops, and turns to sing, and we hear his opening lines in recitativo accompagnato. Then the aria itself. Ottone is the heartbeat of AGRIPPINA. His escape from danger and despair is the great moral tale of this opera.

    In the title role, soprano Caroline Worra was to the manner born, mixing a scintillating coloratura with a humanity in characterization that spelled arrogance, scheming, and yet a saving torment of misgiving. Claudio (Christian Van Horn) was also well cast, with a commanding voice and presence that gave no doubt as to who this guy is – and what the stakes are for his successor. The Nerone of David Trudgen was agile in voice and movement. And none other than the superb Kathleen Kim (Olympia in CONTEs and Madame Mao in NIXON IN CHINA) was the flighty Poppea, expertly deepening her characterization upon learning of Agrippina’s conniving and of Ottone’s innocence. Best of all was the Ottone of Anthony Roth Costanzo. Vocally and dramatically, he was up to the challenge of his role. All three castrato parts, Claudio, Nerone, and Ottone, were sung by countertenors; all were excellent. Supernumeraries, those ubiquitous gold-masked commedia dell’arte figures in Shakespearian fools’ garb, were mute dramatic foils to the cast or interacted silently with them. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow was in full control of his orchestra of 30 (including a theorbo) and cast of 8.

    There were only a few times where the production seemed to hover at, or go over, the top. But it was worth every bit. Good clowning has its place, if sympathetic and knowing, and so it was here, in good taste, serving the action through modern eyes. A scene of bedroom intrusion briefly played like Cherubino’s high jinks in Act II of Mozart’s FIGARO, all of 76 years later. Such comedy assigns to darkness and irony a starker relief, as in good hands it always does. It worked, as did everything else in this production, Boston Lyric’s best work in a very long time.

    Comment by Henry Hoover — March 24, 2011 at 7:47 am

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