Saturday, February 17, 2007

Review: 'Agrippina'

Virginia Opera in Handel's “Agrippina”
Feb. 16, Landmark Theater, Richmond

As a rule, directors and designers who move operas out of their scripted times and places face two daunting obstacles: The composer and the librettist, whose music, story and characterizations are crafted to evoke a certain milieu and rarely take kindly to relocation.

The major exception to the rule is baroque opera. The stories were historical or mythological, but the music was not antiqued, and the custom was to stage the operas with contemporary (i.e., 17th- or 18th-century) costumes and sets.

So the Virginia Opera is “historically informed,” sort of, in presenting Handel’s first hit opera, composed in 1709, set in ancient Rome, with a cast outfitted like late-20th century Eurotrash. This production, closing out its run this weekend in Richmond, is one of several recent revivals of “Agrippina” in the U.S. and England. Not one has been a toga party.

Agrippina, the shrewish wife of the Emperor Claudius, is determined that the next caesar will be her son, Nero. Claudius, returning from his conquest of Britain, is nearly lost at sea in a storm; he is saved by the centurian Ottone, whom he taps as his successor. The queen enlists Poppea, a courtesan loved by Ottone and craved by Claudius and Nero, in a plot to discredit her son’s rival. (If you're trying to remember this from "I, Claudius," don't bother – it transpires between episodes 12 and 13.)

Such a tale could play out in any executive suite, any political body, any family in which the stakes of marriage or inheritance are worth fighting over – and however bloody the battle or dire the consequences, it would still be in essence a farce.

Lillian Groag, stage director of this production, frames “Agrippina” as a classic farce, but with stage movement and sight gags that are more Marx Brothers or Monty Python than Molière. (My favorite is the martini shaker joining the continuo section.) The production’s physical energy and quick comic timing suit Handel’s music, especially at its speediest or most florid, and the nearly nonstop action compensates for several voices that aren’t lean or nimble enough for baroque operatic style.

In the Feb. 16 performance, soprano Sujung Kim (Agrippina), bass-baritone Derrick Parker (Claudius) and tenor Jeffrey Halili (Nero) were audibly discomfited by the demands of Handellian bel canto. Kim’s tone was too rich, and Parker’s voice too big, to manage brilliant high-speed runs without smearing. Halili’s voice was light enough, but not flexible enough, and prone to the occasional bleat.

Their shortcomings were effectively underscored by the stylistic fluency and vocal agility of countertenor David Walker (Ottone) and soprano Jane Redding (Poppea). They also proved to be gifted comic actors; and in that, at least, the other principals rose to their standard.

Countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum and bass-baritone Matthew Burns, as the palace courtiers Narciso and Pallante, were amusingly manic toadies, but their jittery highjinks exacted a price in vocal control.

The show’s star comics are its seven supernumeraries: Clyde Berry, Josh Dooley, Harry Drew-Wingfield, Levi Hull, Kenneth Jones, Bryan Smith and Trentonn Smith. Clad in tuxedos, faces masked in pancake makeup, rouge and eyeliner, cigarettes dangling from a lip or two, they are a silent Greek chorus, miming catcalls at the proceedings. This is an inspired touch, also a practical one: If your attention flags in the recap of an aria, somebody’s goofing divertingly in a corner.

Michael Ganio’s postmodern-classical set nicely accommodates the action – multiple levels, many nooks and crannies to peek out of – although the thrones in crinkled gold foil activate the tacky meter. Ottone’s Wehrmachtisch uniform is another unhelpful distraction.

Peter Mark, the company’s artistic director, obtained weighty, deliberate orchestral accompaniment, all too often dully colored and intonationally iffy.

Oboist George Corbett was a warmly plaintive partner to Walker in “Voi che udite il mio lamento,” the most sublime aria (and one of the few sincere ones) in the opera.

The final Richmond performance begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, at the Landmark Theater, Main and Laurel streets. Tickets: $20-$85. Information: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster).