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A large audience in the Landmark Theater found a number of surprises in the last performance of Virginia Opera's tour of the state's premiere of George Frederic Handel's Agrippina. The 24-year-old composer was completing his tour of Italy, seeking to glean all he could of both instrumental and vocal Italianate style. Agrippina (Venice, 1709) was his third opera and his first big success. The libretto, by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, a practiced diplomat and Viceroy of Naples, is one of the finest texts the composer ever had, and he made the most of it with delightful arias and a splendid score. Those used to Handel's "serious" oratorios and heroic or tragic opera serias will be surprised that Agrippina is a comedy that can be readily staged, in part, as a bedroom farce. Although the librettist was a cardinal, the opera is a cynical display of Machiavellian power politics, in which "evil" triumphs. Using the real people who are described in histories of Tacitus and Suetonius, Cardinal Grimani satirized contemporary 18th-century Vatican politics.
The cast in Agrippina's premiere would have been dressed in the best of then-contemporary court clothes. The director of Virginia Opera's production, Lillian Groag took this as a point of departure and cast the singers in modern high fashion in order to stress the plot's continued relevance to our times, with spin doctors, doubtful political ads, and sudden shifts of policy. Groag says her staging is a "satirical look at a seizure of power, all told in the span of one day and with all the high jinks of a French bedroom farce."
Agrippina's over-riding obsession is getting her son Nero onto her husband (and uncle) Claudius's throne. In response to a false report of Caesar's drowning at sea, Agrippina conspires with Pallas and Narcissus, Claudius’s freedmen acting as high bureaucratic administrators, to create a public demand for Nero to take his place on the throne. As Nero mounts the throne, martial music and chorus announce the joyful return of Claudius. Ottone, his rescuer, who had been promised to be Caesar's heir, asks Agrippina to help him win his true love, the voluptuous Poppea. Instead, Agrippina launches Plan B, to get Ottone disgraced by playing up Poppea's jealousy. Ottone is stripped of his honors, but Poppea learns about Agrippina's manipulations and counters with her own plan: with Ottone concealed, she invites Nero and Claudius to visit her bedroom in succession. Following various suitors' hiding behind drapes in turn, Claudius, lying in Poppea's bed, is taken aback when an underdressed Nero leaps in with him. Agrippina's plans seem ready to crash when these events are joined by Pallas's and Narcissus' confession of complicity with her initial crowning of Nero. With sang froid and lots of chutzpa, she convinces Claudius that she was only acting for the best for Rome, preventing any attempt to bring back the Republic.
There was not a single weakness in Virginia Opera's fine cast of young singer-actors. Both leading women were terrific, and that they cut a fine appearance whether clothed or in dishabille was just icing on the cake. Korean soprano Sujung Kim has made part of her career in Handel operas. She has a considerable stage presence and just the right imperious bearing for the role of Agrippina. Her voice was firmly focused and evenly supported across its range, and she used it with acute musicianship — precise intonation, clear articulation in fast passages, and subtle application of color. As her rival character Poppea, soprano Jane Redding was her match in vocal quality. Her timbre and warmth were combined with some brilliant high notes. Both were consummate actors.
Baritone Derrick Parker easily dominated the stage as Claudius, the Roman Caesar. Except when he faced away, his moderately light voice readily filled the hall. He had a fine sense of comic timing and made fine use of facial expressions to convey his character’s frustrations, both amorous and political.
Counter-tenor David Walker, as the one true-blue character, Ottone, sang with a pleasing tone, solidly projected. His high notes were secure, and he used subtle dynamics and a refined palette of colors to convey his character's joy, turmoil, and confusion.
While tenor Jeffrey Halili's voice is not large, it was more than sufficient to portray Nero’s giddy irresponsibility, fecklessness, and an undercurrent of potential danger. In Groag's production, Nero sniffs cocaine and is a lush. In the opening scene, he pops up from sharing Agrippina's bed, madly cackling. The historic Nero was real close to mom. (Oedipus had the excuse of ignorance!)
It is always a pleasure to find a great potential voice early in its career in a secondary role. Virginia Opera's production had a fuller selection of arias than many do, including separate arias for Pallas and Narcissus. Richmond native, Matthew Burns, as Pallas, sang with a large and well-rounded baritone featuring an especially gorgeous lower range. His solid vocalism was a constant delight. Counter-tenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum sang with a warm tone in the role of timorous Narcissus. Peruvian bass-baritone Eduardo Castro had some fine comic moments as Lesbos, Claudius' much put upon go-between.
Virginia Opera is to be praised for retaining the full repeated structure of Handel's da capo arias. According to The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, the da capo aria is "in the form ABB (the last line or group of lines rendered twice to similar music...) or sometimes ABA, where the first line or couplet is repeated at the end." Glenn Winter, in an excellent pre-performance program, contrasts a standard Puccini aria, Butterfly's "Un bel dì vedremo" ("One fine day I'll see him"), in which her emotions run a gamut ,with a typical aria from Agrippina, Poppea's "Vaghe perle, eletti fiori" ("Shinning pearls and choicest flowers"), in which only a single emotion is conveyed. Eighteenth-century opera followed the theory of affects; only one emotion was treated at a time, so a series of arias were needed to give a rounded portrait of a major character.
Lillian Groag's up-dating of the opera was effective far more than not. While she sometimes skirted mighty close to the edge of good taste, she stopped well short of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. In the opening scene, it was certainly an audience-grabber to have Agrippina draw a sizeable pistol on her lackeys, who woke her suddenly with the news of Claudius' drowning. A favorite moment came when the rabble and conspirators bearing "Elect Nero" placards, hastily marked "We Love Claudius" on the blank backs of the cards! The multiple concealments in Poppea's bedroom in Act II were handled in classic comedic style.
The Scenic Designer was Michael Ganio and the Lighting Designer was Robert Wiezel. The set, provided courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater, consisted of suggestive architectural elements and hangings that could be quickly dropped into place or pulled above stage; these were more than adequate to suggest public and private spaces. Lighting was subtly and effectively applied. Projected drifting clouds added a nice touch to Ottone's suicidal reflections upon his rapid downfall.
Music Director Peter Mark led a small chamber orchestra formed by members of the Virginia Symphony in a vivacious and stylish performance of Handel's colorful and imaginative score. The effective continuo for recitatives consisted of cellist Janet Kriner and harpsichordist Laura Friesen, whose instrument was discretely amplified. The trumpets and timpani were brilliant, and the numerous solos for oboes were an endless delight.
This Virginia Opera production was a complete success from every point of view. I regret missing their earlier Handelian ventures, Julius Caesar (1997) and Rodelinda (2000). Would be possible to venture on to Tamerlano, Serse, Ariodante, Orlando, and his secular oratorio Semele in future seasons?