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.
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.
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.