Monday, March 14, 2011

David Trudgen faces down Julius Caesar as Nero. Photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

You leave Boston Lyric Opera's Agrippina a bit winded, I think: it's so good in so many ways you can't quite believe it.  Or perhaps you're just winded from laughter; for this Agrippina is not only exquisitely sung, and brilliantly acted and designed, it's also screamingly funny, in a go-for-broke pop style that many local productions have attempted but few have brought off (the only competition I can think of was Opera Boston's La Grande-Duchesse de GĂ©rolstein, but that's a far lesser opera).  Perhaps the shortest, punchiest review for Agrippina would be: Big voices, big laughs = grand opera, or something like that.  BLO has always specialized in opera as popular entertainment (just as Handel did); with Agrippina, they've practically perfected it.

Although I can already guess what some will say: "It's too funny."  Right.  Too funny.  I know you won't believe me, but I was doubled over with laughter at some of Agrippina (and I thought my partner might have a seizure).  I guess you're not supposed to do that at Handel.  But I'm not sure why - at least when not only the singing and music are first-rate, but the concept and direction are, too.  And incredibly, somehow Agrippina hangs onto its sense of grandeur despite its many pratfalls - and when the libretto spins on a dime in the second act and turns tragic, believe it or not, the production does as well.  In short, you'll laugh and you'll cry.  You could argue whether the BLO cast finds a synthesis of these opposed styles for the opera's final act; I mean, you could if you wanted to.  I'd had so much fun by then that I really didn't care.

I admit, though, that I wasn't sure the BLO could pull off a satire quite this brazen in the opening scene (when a bored Nero almost set his mother on fire).  But I soon realized just about everyone on stage had not only operatic pipes but crack comic timing, too; and at any rate, it became impossible to ignore the tone of Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani's blackly comic libretto (widely viewed at the time as a parody of Vatican politics).  You probably know the basic plot from I, Claudius or L'incoronazione di Poppea: the ruthless Agrippina schemes, well, ruthlessly to place her son Nero (here Nerone) on the throne in the waning years of the reign of Claudius (here Claudio).  Incredibly, Handel and Grimani transform these Roman power plays into a kind of quasi-romantic roundelay, with only the occasional hint of the disaster that Nerone's impending reign would become.

Venice meets Rome meets modernity: Kathleen Kim's entrance as Poppea.
Director Lillian Groag leans heavily, then, on screwball antics, and lets just about everybody chew the scenery.  The amazing thing is that the cast is so strong - and Groag's clever stage business so artfully  intertwined with the music - that it all works, even when it gets a little hammy.  Soprano Caroline Worra makes a kind of mad stage mother of Agrippina - she seems to be devouring the role as we watch; but she's also in glorious voice, and when the empress is suddenly struck by guilty doubts (see masthead photo), suddenly Worra is dramatically riveting, too.  She's matched, however, by Kathleen Kim's piping pepperpot of a Poppea (above), who not only soars dazzlingly through several demanding arias, but has major bedroom-farce chops, too.  But then I can't forget baritone Christian Van Horn's horny Claudius - another amazing match between a voice to die for and bedroom moves that leave you in stitches.  Perhaps not quite as compelling vocally was countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo's Ottone.  Costanzo seemed to have breath control trouble in his big Act II aria, but dramatically it was heart-breaking anyway, and somehow Costanzo's characterization wound up being very endearing.  The other big counter-tenor role was handled more consistently, by David Trudgen (at top), who brought a nicely spoiled spin to the proceedings, but from whom I hoped for a bit more dark twistedness here and there.  There was also very nice work around the edges of the production by bass David M. Cushing, a local boy who has never sounded better.

Caroline Worra and Christian Van Horn.
Meanwhile, down in the pit, Gary Thor Wedow conducted with both sensitivity and muscular feeling - although he wasn't working with period instruments, but rather something like a hybrid modern orchestra with a continuo section.  This bolder sound matched the bold stage business, however, and that sense of a "hybrid" modern/baroque aesthetic played out elsewhere, too  - the houselights were half-dimmed (in Handel's day, they wouldn't have been dimmed at all), and the orchestra pit was lifted to almost audience-level (again, there would have been no break between audience and players in the 18th century).  Even the stage design hinted at an overlay of eras - the cast was clad in a range of modern duds, from Mussolini to Swinging London, but they plotted and schemed among moving chunks of ancient Rome (bisected occasionally by abstract stairs and thrones - often the color of Agrippina's gown, at left).  The great John Conklin was responsible for this layered, ever-shifting vision - constantly re-configured by Venetian courtiers from Handel's day - and it was lit with startling imagination by Robert Wierzel (who I'm beginning to think, after seeing this and Idomeneo, may be the most talented lighting designer alive).  Alas, opening night featured its own bit of stage drama, when two moving columns crashed into each other.  But something tells me they've taken care of that by now - because frankly I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything BLO can't do.  Agrippina marks their third hit, out of three productions, this year.  With their upcoming Midsummer by Britten, they may just go four-for-four.


  1. Do you know if this was a remount of the AGRIPPINA from the 2001 season at Glimmerglass Opera? I was in my early theatrical career that summer working as a prop artisan, & I remember gold-leafing for hours on that show (including on the bathtub pictured above). I was hoping to see it again, but unfortunately was booked with tech rehearsals throughout the run. I remember it fondly, though & am glad it was a hit.

    Kathryn Kawecki
    Boston/New England Scene Designer

  2. I think the sets and costumes were adapted from a previous New York City Opera/Glimmerglass production, yes. Congratulations on your good work, the bathtub looked terrific!