Staged at the Paramount Theater, a charmingly reconceived 1930’s movie palace on Washington Street in downtown Boston, the New England Conservatory Opera Theater’s production of Handel’s Agrippina provided a delightful and a perfect vehicle for the Conservatory’s singer-actors on Saturday night.
NEC last produced a Handel opera 50 years ago, when the legendary Boris Goldovsky conducted and directed Acis and Galatea. Mentor to Phyllis Curtin, Sherrill Milnes, Sarah Caldwell, and a host of others, his Russian tinged tenor voiced intermission features on the Saturday afternoon Texaco Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts for more than 50 years.
Handel penned Acis and Galatea in 1718 for private entertainment at an English nobleman’s country house. Agrippina, from Handel’s early years in Italy, first played in December 1709 in Venice, a city with a long tradition of opera in public theaters. Although based on the writings of the ancient historians Tacitus and Suetonius, the libretto was new. Its author, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, took liberties with the historical sequence of events but not with the character and motives of Claudius, the Roman emperor; Pallas and Narcissus, his favorites; Agrippina, his wife; Nero, her son; and Poppea, lover of Claudius and Otto and a schemer who flirts with everyone. The Venetian audience was familiar with all these characters. As has been suggested, they may even have seen this anti-heroic comedy as a satire on the Papal court and Pope Clement XI himself.
The NEC production, directed by Crystal Manich (she directed Boston Lyric Opera’s recently staged Werther), transports the characters to a 1930s Mussolini-era environment. Fortunately, this conceit is not explored too literally. Stephen Dobay’s set on three levels displays busts of five past emperors atop leaning Corinthian columns; behind them hangs a never-setting golden sun. A throne with the insignia “SPQR” swings in the air, out of reach. A headless mannequin in purple robes and silvery breastplate stands in waiting, and a fuchsia velvet fringed seat hints at flirtations to come. The costumes by Brooke Stanton featured mostly modern dress for the men, with a series of not-so-innocent takes on pure white for Poppea, while Agrippina, gowned in elegant 1930s style, appeared successively in green, red, and sinister black. Standing in for multitudinous scene changes in the original, various props came and went, and Christopher Ostrom’s lighting did its part. The opera was sung in Italian, with English titles projected either side of the stage. Under Manich’s expert direction, the plot’s kaleidoscope of complex intrigues was made clear enough to be enjoyable (and often hilarious) on its own merits.
The glory of Agrippina is of course Handel’s music: stunning arias that reveal inner turmoil and strong emotion; lively recitatives that gently poke fun at human foibles. A large proportion of the vocal movements drew on Handel’s own Italian cantatas and other works or ones he borrowed from other composers and improved upon for their new context. Claudio’s familiare are opposites: Pallante a blundering basso buffo; Narciso a trouser role sung with timorous comic flair by alto Morgan Middleton. As Agrippina, soprano Margaret Bridge showed a mastery of Handel’s virtuosic flights as well as his understanding of character. Bridge’s dramatic flexibility came to the fore most effectively in Act II, her singing embodying Agrippina’s strength and cunning but also her doubts and hesitations. In “Pensiere, voi mi tormentate” (Thoughts, you torment me), an introductory ritornello for violins and bass in octaves depicts, with its false starts and strong contrasts, a mixture of anxiety and resolution. Agrippina has her own story to tell, however, in a sinuous, irregular melody that reveals her penchant for intrigue. In the middle section before the da capo return, she changes tactics to demand assistance from heaven. Then another about face: a recitative that tells of her softened view of Ottone and Poppea, folowed by a second, shortened return of the first section. Christopher Carbin, basso, was all pompous bluster in buffo arias outlining enormous leaps, but could turn tenderly amorous in the cavatina “Vieni, O cara” (Come, O dear one). Poppea (soprano Elisa Sunshine) played a naive yet wily flirt whose arias were primarily light and melodious as she seduced one man after another. An exception was the garden scene, where she revealed her anger at Agrippina in a parody of the classic rage-revenge aria. In her final aria in Act III, Handel’s rhythmic quirks (2/4 measures inserted into 3/8) were beautifully accented by her light and agile coloratura and sure musicianship.
Nero is depicted as a boy in the opera, sung by soprano Xu Chu. Weak and frivolous, he carries his violin around with him, playing it at odd moments. Overcoming an initial tendency to scoop up to high notes, Xu sang with more assurance in the second act, and carried off the virtuosic “Come nube che fugge” (Like clouds that vanish) in Act III with aplomb. Ottone, written for a female contralto, was sung by Kara Morgan, whose voice seemed ideal for the role. With strong low notes and clear, straight tone, she voiced her misery and despair, first in a recitative soliloquy with declamatory string accompaniment, then addressing the audience in a passionate aria in the “tragic” key of F minor: “Voi che udite il mio lamento” (You who hear my lament). In Grimani and Handel’s happy final resolution of the tangled drama, Nero is named his successor by Claudio, renouncing any claim on Poppea’s love. Ottone renounces his claim to the throne, which enables him to marry Poppea; they live happily ever after. Venetians would have known otherwise: both Otto and Nero married Poppea, one after the other, both became emperor, and both died by suicide.
Guest conductor Christopher Larkin led the New England Conservatory Orchestra with crisp articulation that never overwhelmed the singers. Timothy Steele, harpsichord, and Noemie Raymond-Friset, cello, provided sensitive continuo support for the recitatives. Let’s hope we can look forward to more Handel operas from the NEC Opera Theater.