In my lifetime, performing operas written by George Frideric Handel has changed from improbable to ubiquitous. Well, perhaps not quite ubiquitous—opera subscribers are not yet demanding Alcina instead of Carmen or Giulio Cesare in place of Don Giovanni. But that day may come sooner than we think.
However, the chance to see a production of one of the 40-plus Handel operas is still unusual enough to make an opera buff perk up. On August 14 & 16, Opera NEO’s Summer Opera Festival and Workshop presented a vivacious, dramatically convincing Agrippina by G. F. Handel at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Crill Performance Hall.
Handel’s first successful Italian opera, Agrippina is a sexy comedic romp that skewers politicians’ public moral posturing by exposing their clandestine schemes and affairs. If in 1709 Handel had to submit his tale about Agrippina, the treacherous wife of Rome’s Emperor Claudius, and the illicit liaisons of Claudius’ court to today’s motion picture rating system, he would have been lucky to slip by with an “R” rating.
Stage Director Peter Kozma updated this chunk of Roman history (you may not recall who Agrippina was, but you know her son Nero!) to the present, cleverly employing portable TV cameras and a large digital screen atop the stage to bring the plot’s political posturing into the lingua franca of 21st-century cable news reporting. Not only was this ploy a convincing update—it was also fun to watch the Emperor’s black-suited secret service guards do the heavy lifting as scenery-changers.
Coloratura soprano Christina Pezzarossi sang a dazzling Agrippina, her fleet vocal technique conquering Handel’s
demanding passagework with finesse and apparent ease. Her character’s villainy oozed from every pore, yet she revealed genuine pathos in her reflective aria late in the opera “Thoughts Trouble Me” (that was the aria’s opening line, according to the supertitles). Countertenor Daniel Moody as Narciso, Agrippina’s young suitor, came close to matching Pezzarossi’s fluent technique and dramatic phrasing, and he consistently filled his vocal lines with energetic drive appropriate to the style.
Typical of operas of the early 18th century, there were only a few choruses, and these few rousing ensembles burst forth for public events surrounding the Emperor. For these the singers combined with requisite trumpets and drums to make jubilant, glowing choral statements.
Most of the cast members in this workshop performance are vocal students at varying levels participating in graduate degree programs at important North American universities and conservatories. The performance levels of younger voices invariably differ, depending upon how soon they started their serious vocal study and how soon their voices settle into their range.
That said, several singers in the cast show particular promise, notably soprano Charlea Lyn Grieco as Poppea, countertenors Padraic Costello (Ottone) and Min Sang Kim (Nerone), and baritones Andy Eaton (Claudius) and Zane Ransom Hill (Lesbo). From her program bio, it appears that Grieco, a fiery dramatic soprano, is attracted to verismo roles, and I would love to hear her Santuzza in a couple of years. If she believes Baroque opera is her calling, she will require more technical discipline to master its unceasing fioritura.[php snippet=2]
The two countertenors have opposite challenges. Costello’s stylish phrasing and thoughtful interpretations were on the money, but he did not project his sound well enough into the room. Kim possesses an unusually powerful voice, rare among countertenors, but he oversang frequently and did not seem to know which words of a phrase were important.
I was attracted to the suave contours and warmth of Eaton’s baritone, but his stage presence as Emperor was stiff and two-dimensional. He certainly won the audience’s sympathy for allowing his lovers to undress him seductively onstage, only to find himself required to suit up hastily before the TV cameras or another lover were about to crash the scene. Hill saucily swished his way through the role of the Emperor’s dutiful attendant, compensating in stagecraft for the few vocal lines tossed his way in the score. Baritone Stephen Maus embodied the obsequious traits of Pallante, a vacillating member of the court, with confidence.
Alina Bokovikova’s sleek, boderline chic costume design was a delight to the eye, and the simplicity of the set’s movable stairways and raised platforms (uncredited in the program book) provided great flexibility for Stage Director Kozma to station his players in many varied configurations on Crill Auditorium’s cramped stage.
Nicholas Kraemer conducted his 30-piece pit orchestra with decisive clarity and sensitivity to 18th-century proportion. Concertmaster Pierre Joubert, who regularly executes that role with the BachCollegium San Diego, exercied his dependably crisp leadership over the upper strings, and cellist Heather Vorwerck carried out that essential role of continuo cellist with unfailing grace and proper period style.