Having only last month mounted The Emperor of Atlantis, a dark, spare opera composed in the horrific confines of a Nazi concentration camp, Boston Lyric Opera is now transporting us to the glittering, sumptuous Baroque opera stage. Their vehicle is Handel’s 1709 Agrippina, the composer’s first, full-blown Italian opera. Could the company successfully shift gears, and bring off a work of such complexity and virtuosity? The answer is a resounding yes! And BLO’s gamble has proven one of their greatest triumphs in recent seasons.
It is astounding that Handel entered the Italian opera arena as a fully formed genius, in total command of the style. Musically, Agrippina is sublime, with an endless stream of exquisite arias, ranging widely in mood, instrumental color, and harmonic, rhythmic and contrapuntal invention. Don’t be fooled into thinking that, as an early opera, it is any less inspired than his later operatic masterpieces.
Played as comedy
Handel had already developed the ability to psychoanalyze his characters through the music he composed for them. In this case, the plot concerns the title Roman noblewoman, power-hungry, and obsessed with securing the imperial throne for her weakling son, Nero. When Claudio (yes, of I Claudius fame) announces the heroic Ottone as his successor, Agrippina hatches a complex scheme to discredit Ottone with Claudio, as well as Poppea, Ottone’s lover, also lusted after by both Nero and Claudio.
In examining the libretto, it is difficult to ascertain whether the opera was originally played as drama or comedy. BLO opted for the latter approach, and, brought it off with true élan.
Although the character of Agrippina dominates Handel’s opera, the true heroine of BLO’s production was stage director Lillian Groag. The direction was seamless and elegant, never crass, nonsensical or self-indulgent, traits one so often finds in German or Swiss productions of Baroque operas. The stage business never interfered with or detracted from the music. The comic touches all worked to perfection, and were often hysterically funny, due also to the superb comic timing of the entire cast.
Originally created for Glimmerglass and the New York City Opera, the sets and costumes were tasteful and effective, no tutus, bidets or brick walls. The story was played against massive, moveable flats decorated with Roman architectural motifs. These simply adorned panels provided an ideal backdrop for the magnificent, beautifully tailored costumes. A large orchestra of original instruments was assembled for the occasion, which realized the music with vigor and precision. The elaborate instrumental solos, many of which were borrowed by Handel from his own earlier Italian cantatas, were tossed off with amazing accuracy. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow proved an expert hand, endowing the music with a broad variety of tempi, all well-chosen, as well as subtle nuance.
A remarkable performance
As the manipulative matriarch herself, soprano Caroline Worra gave a remarkable performance. Her bright, focused soprano soared across the florid passages with ease. Although her comic sense was innately keen, she was equally strong in dramatic moments, such as the astounding "Pensieri" aria, in which her voice took on a plangent quality. An endearing stage presence, she made it difficult to completely detest this Agrippina.
Though diminutive in stature, Kathleen Kim possesses a large, lustrous soprano voice, and was an absolute delight in the role of the cagy Poppea. Countertenors David Trudgen, as Nero, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, as Ottone were both excellent. Trudgen has the beefier sound, veering more toward the male soprano; yet Costanzo’s softer grained countertenor was highly effective in the plaintive arias. Bass-baritone Christian van Horn made a delightfully pompous emperor, and his rich, secure instrument was most impressive. All of the minor roles were well cast, and beautifully sung.
Boston Lyric Opera’s 2010-11 season has thus far boasted an exciting Tosca, and a brilliant Emperor of Atlantis, and has Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream slated for next month. With this superlative production of Handel’s Agrippina, the company confirms its place as the city’s premier opera troupe. Performances of Agrippina run through March 22. Don’t miss this one, under any circumstances!
Remaining performances of Agrippina are March 13m, 16, 18, 20m, 22, 2011
At the Citi Performing Arts Center, Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. 3pm Sunday matinees. All other performances 7:30pm. For more information visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.