note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Ancient Roman leaders trying to usurp the throne and kill each other off? Slapstick humor? Designer Jess Goldstein’s contemporary costumes, with striped pajamas, tuxedos, gowns, sundress and sunglasses, offset by a metallic-masked, Renaissance-clad ensemble, surrounded by designer John Conklin’s colossal, elegant, classical Roman set, with its four towering, movable facades and marbled, graduated- sized Caesar heads ?
It sounds like an unlikely amalgam for George Frideric Handel’s 1709, stunning opera, “Agrippina,” a late Baroque piece considered perhaps as his first operatic masterpiece, written with librettist Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani in Venice to be performed during carnevale time, in Grimani’s theater. However, the Boston Lyric Opera’s (BLO) three-act production that’s sung in Italian, with projected English translation, has audiences laughing out loud and exuberantly rising to its collective feet at the finale.
The post-opera summary is even funnier.
Handel diehards are aware this classical, yet modern, production directed by Lillian Groag, (who originally staged it for creators Glimmerglass and New York City Opera), adheres faithfully to Handel’s Baroque Era productions. Orchestra Conductor Gary Thor Wedow, formerly of the Handel and Hadyn Society, who has appeared with several orchestras nationally and currently teaches at Juilliard School of Music, ensures its authentic experience by incorporating instruments popularly used in the early 1700s, such as the harpsichord, theorbo, double bass, cello, and virginals (which Wedow plays here), in a five-piece continuo. He artistically carries out Handel’s desire to blend music and voice perfectly, so that one doesn’t overpower the other, but works in concert, finely tuned. In fact, the BLO raised the orchestra pit, bringing the orchestra and performers closer to each other.
Handel’s music is beautiful, lyrical, yet allows performers to interpret their roles and add extra trills to each aria. And since the opera is a dark, satiric farce, the cast has fun mugging, prat-falling, adding comical facial expressions and body language to enhance their personalities and lighten their treachery.
Beautiful soprano Caroline Worra, who thrilled Boston audiences in “Idomeneo” last year, is deliciously scheming as Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius, whom she thinks died at sea and attempts to usurp the throne for her feckless, buffoonish, matricidal teenage son, Nerone. Agrippina's plans are thwarted when Claudius appears, with great heraldry, declaring he intends to name Ottone as his successor for saving his life.
Christian Van Horn’s gorgeous bass baritone is regal as Claudius, yet his lusty behavior as he chases lovely young Poppea is banal.
Metropolitan Opera soprano Kathleen Kim may be petite, but as Poppea, her voice is gorgeously modulated, her comic timing delightful as she wards off Claudius and his stepson Nerone’s advances, while staying faithful to her beloved Ottone, despite Agrippina’s tricking her into wrongly thinking Ottone deserted her to ascend the throne. Countertenors David Trudgen of Canada as Nerone and Jose Alvarez as Agrippina’s yes-man, Narcissus, also shine, but Anthony Roth Costanzo is outstanding as Ottone, opera antihero and its only honorable man. Costanzo’s tender, beautiful voice punctuates his loving ardor for Poppea, and his heartache when treachery surrounds him.
Adding to the comic capers are Boston favorite bass baritone, David Cushing, as Claudius’ inebriated, disheveled, devoted servant, Lesbos, and David McFerrin as Narcissus‘ sidekick and Agrippina infatuee, Pellante.
As the audience exited the theater, several called “Agrippina” BLO’s finest offering yet, because it appeals to everyone, young and old, opera neophyte and buff.
BOX INFO: Three-act Baroque opera composed by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, appearing with the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO),through March 22, at the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston. Performances are March 16,18,22, at 7:30 p.m.; matinee, March 20 at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $34; group, student discounts. Call 866-348-9738 or visit blo.org. Each performance is preceded by a half-hour preview lecture.