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Boston Baroque stays true to Handel's style and gives us an Agrippina with a cast that does the genre well.
OCTOBER 22, 2005
Reviewed By: Paul Joseph Walkowski
An evening with Boston Baroque is to be enjoyed on multiple levels: there is the atmosphere of Jordan Hall – rich, paneled, floor to ceiling organ pipes that run the full width of the stage, the stadium seating, the magnificent architecture, the feel of old Boston in every corner, and the intimacy of the small hall itself, allowing both singers and orchestra the greatest opportunity to maximize the range of their instruments, pianissimo to fortissimo.
Saturday evening, 22 October in Boston, was rainy, cold and raw, but inside Jordan Hall, the orchestra under the able direction of Martin Pearlman, warmed things up a bit with a story of love, passion, betrayal and seduction that, though first performed in December 1709, gives us a glimpse of how eighteenth century Venice viewed erotica for Rome in the days of Nero.
This was a solid performance of Handel's second opera "Agrippina”, and tells the plight of a manipulative woman obsessed with seeing her son, Nero, ascend to the throne of Rome, and who is willing to use anyone, including her husband Claudius, to ensure that her will be done, which in the end it was.
To tell this story a fine ensemble cast with Twyla Robinson singing the title role of Agrippina didn’t disappoint. Ms. Robinson displayed good control over her character and managed all the right moves with a voice that bespoke ease and grace throughout, which is no small achievement considering Handel’s use of vocal ornamentations that call on singers to have flexibility and stamina to carry off. Michael Maniaci, a male soprano, singing the role of the pampered son Nero, a part that was initially written by Handel for a male castrato, demonstrated both good control and power at the higher range, and solid handling of Handel’s fluid scoring.
As was often the case in the period of seventeenth and eighteenth century operas, gender bending roles, and the use of castrati were common, and here, as in other operas of the era, Handel gives us characters that are supposed to be men, sung by women, and men who sing in a soprano or strong choirboy’s range. It’s a style of antiquity that doesn’t sit well with everyone, and which definitely requires a mature audience -- which may not be good news for those who want to introduce these operas to a younger crowd.
In Agrippina the roles of Narcissus and Otho, male roles in this opera, are sung by women: mezzo-soprano Eudora Brown as Narcissus, and mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore as Otho. Each handled their role well and sang comfortably within their range, easily navigating the Handel vocalizations called for in the score and displaying enough gravitas, especially Ms. Lattimore, to help the audience see her as a he.
Soprano Sari Gruber’s, Poppea, the love interest of both Otho and Claudius, sang her role well and displayed solid acting ability, strong stage presence, and the ability to weave into her every inflection a gentle seduction of the audience that was hard to resist.
Bass baritone Kevin Deas’ Claudius was performed and sung well. Mr. Deas has a clear and strong voice that is mellifluous at both ends of the range, and never appears stretched or strained. Kudos must also go to baritone Sumner Thompson who sang the role of Pallas and baritone Aaron Engebreth who sang the role Lesbo. As noted, this was a good ensemble cast that did the genre well.
While the production used only props, kudos go to the stage direction by Sam Helfrich whose movement of bodies around an empty stage was effective, allowing the characters to move on and off with virtually no disruption to the storyline. As for outfitting the cast in contemporary clothing, sun glasses and raincoats – well, it didn’t hurt, but neither did it lend much.
While I would prefer that male roles in these period operas be transposed to reflect cultural and contemporary changes of our time, Boston Baroque gives a literal interpretation to the scoring of these parts for women, as Handel wrote them. This stays true to the composer’s preference, but does present the eye with an incongruity that takes the mind a little time to accept.
Conductor, Martin Pearlman
Stage Direction, Sam Helfrich