Saturday, February 25, 2017

Glittery Saturated Baroque at Juilliard

Handel’s Agrippina
Juilliard School of Music
February 16, 2017
A sickly Claudius who just keeps refusing to die
Photo credit: Richard Termine
I never pass up an opportunity to catch some staged fiery baroque opera. Agrippina, Handel’s semi-serious farce on the slow setting of the sun on the emperor Claudius’s reign, is one of those oddities that you just never know what to do with. It presents a slew of emotionally gripping serious musical moments which are then juxtaposed to many of the classic opera buffa tropes, some of which will make their way into Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy and from there into Mozart and Da Ponte’s Nozze di Figaro.

Whereas Agrippina reigns supreme
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
Yet, Juilliard’s production of Agrippina was a beautifully crafted and richly detailed little package delivered with explosive flair. Which should come as no surprise since the show was directed by Heartbeat Opera’s Louisa Proske, who has been rapidly building a solid track record of detail-oriented, thoughtful and irreverent productions. The opera was staged in the Wilson Theater, one of the small black box venues buried deep in the labyrinthine studio space of the Juilliard School. The audience sat around a small sunken set covered in overlapping red-hued oriental rugs and the orchestra played from a platform above the rear of the “stage.” This setting provided a highly intimate experience with excellent acoustics, where the few lucky spectators could really focus on the action and the several show-stopping arias that are really the best part of this opera.

The whole cast was impressive for being so young in terms of their ability to nail this virtuosic baroque material with almost flawless Italian diction. They all handled the highly melismatic coloratura of the score with poise and skill and none of them were breathless in their pursuit of the period orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Grossman, which sounded great yet not as muscular as my favorite renditions of Handel’s score.

Poppea (left) despairs before the Empress Agrippina
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
Particularly impressive highlights were soprano Samantha Hankey (as Agrippina) and the countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski (as Ottone). Ms. Hankey reigned over the entire production grounding it in some semblance of seriousness. She embodied a fiercely scheming, power-hungry woman who is unstoppable in her aspiration of situating her son Nerone on the throne. Vocally, she was impressive, particularly in Pensieri, voi mi tormentate. Mr. Orlinski was particularly expressive and beautifully musical, all while displaying a kinetic stage presence. At one point he literally did three back flips consecutively in place that emphasized his exuberant joy when he realizes Poppea does return his love. I guess that when you have a breakdancing countertenor on hand, you have make the most of it.

Roman regalia meets baroque pomp meets steampunk strange
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
The cast sported mostly awe-inspiring, eccentric costumes, sort of a cross between ancient Roman regalia and high baroque swank, with some extra glitter for good measure. Goth and steampunk elements were also slipped in under the radar adding an odd note to the mix. Also, while I get the importance of the many sexual tensions peppered through the plot, perhaps a giant hand-shaped sex toy used by Poppea’s suitors to express their arousal was probably a tad too much. On the other hand, Nerone crawling constantly out from behind his mother between her legs made more sense as it was semi-sexual but also emphasized his forever childishness which worked with plot and character.

All hail the Caesar!
Photo credit: Voce di Meche
And so yes, Handel’s Agrippina is a farce masquerading as semi-serious opera. With its tidy conclusion, it is a comedy of sorts. Some have even called it an antiheroic satirical comedy for its reported commentary on court intrigues of the time, most of which is lost on us now, as is the goofy way that certain moments of operas like this one inevitably play out. While so much of the music is so visceral, so grave and so serious, many story elements and several plot points don’t really rise to the gravitas of the occasion to match.

Agrippina (right) deploys her powers
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
The story hinges on a series of lies, with intersecting plots carried out secretly. Everybody is tricking everybody else at one point. Much like the count in Le nozze di Figaro, the emperor Claudius has designs to cheat on his wife Agrippina with the loveliest lady-in-waiting, Poppea, who is in turn desired by both Ottone and Nerone. In order to get the emperor to regain his focus, Poppea, Agrippina and just about everybody else all choreograph their own overlapping plots and schemes to achieve their various desired outcomes. The shakedown and its accompanying recognition scene only come late and it culminates in a happy ending with divine reconciliation piled on heavy.

All is well that ends well, except for the fact that Louisa Proske and her team decided to saturate the scene with a quick final flash of blood red light once Nerone grabs the scepter of power in the end, foreboding of what’s to come under the emperor’s dangerously childish rule. And perhaps that was the moment where the political satire made itself felt for audiences today – an extra flourish added by the production team that portends terrible things when the emperor is little more than a man-child.

– Lei & Lui

Court intrigue is the order of the day
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito

No comments:

Post a Comment