Handel's many operas are generally treated with such respect that they come off as stilted period pieces despite their glorious musical scores. But City Opera's Lillian Groag has taken a fresh look at "Agrippina," first performed in Venice in 1709 when Handel was 24 and on a three-year visit to Italy, and found its story of a Roman empress's machinations to elevate her son to the throne funny enough to be treated as high camp.
Groag, who is making her debut with City Opera after a long career in regional opera and theater, also has streamlined the work by eliminating 40 minutes of Handel's extensive recitatives and an extraneous scene or two without short-changing the plot.
"Agrippina" now comes in at a mere two hours and 45 minutes, perfect for modern TV-oriented audiences with short attention spans.
The opera also has been somewhat updated, too. Although set in the reign of Emperor Claudius, the costumes are an eclectic mix of classic Roman, Renaissance, and 1950s Hollywood. A revolver plays an important role in the action, as does a martini cocktail shaker, and TV-like summations of what happened to each character after the opera ends appears on the subtitle screen above the stage.
But the instrumentation used is strictly of Handel's period and includes two harpsichords, a theorbo, violas da gamba, and violone in addition to the City Opera orchestra's modern instruments. Conductor Jane Glover, also making her City Opera debut, leads the orchestra from one of the harpsichords in the best Baroque opera tradition.
"Agrippina," which preceded Handel's long career in London, established him as an eminent composer and is considered his first important opera. In the title role is Claudius' wife who is determined to insure succession to the throne for her son by a previous marriage, Nerone (Nero), a self-important mama's boy.
Based by librettist Vincenzo Grimani on the historical accounts of Tacitus and Suetonius, the opera tells how Agrippina's ambitions are nearly frustrated by Claudius, his mistress Poppea, and Poppea's young lover, Ottone. It ends happily with Nerone named Claudius' heir and Ottone getting Poppea as wife.
Vincenzo Grimani's libretto for the opera marks "Agrippina" as an important early example of opera seria, a form which stressed formality and plot complexity, classical and mythological themes, and elaborate arias which showed off the voices of favorite singers of the day. Fortunately, "Agrippina" retains some of the humor that marked earlier opera style.
It is this humor that lends itself to Groag's campy treatment that helps the cast develop individualized characters that are both amusing and memorable and gives the opera a freshness that it would not have with more conventional direction.
Soprano Brenda Harris is a gorgeous, conniving, gun-waving, blackmailing hoot as Agrippina as she might be played by Joan Crawford, and bass Gregory Reinhart is a pompous fool as a Claudius with the mannerisms of Charles Laughton.
Counter tenor David Walker, a young hunk with a pigtail, comes on as a charismatic rock star, and soprano Nancy Allen Lundy's Poppea is the emptily pretty film starlet who never tires of looking at herself in the mirror.
The pants role of Nerone is taken by mezzo-soprano Kimberly Barber whose impersonation of a young, impetuous man is perfect down to every gesture and strut. Taking supporting roles in the manner of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Kevin Burdette as Pallante and Ryland Angel in the counter tenor role of Narcisso, and Jason Grant as Lesbo.
The level of vocalism is generally high. Harris has a powerful and true instrument that is occasionally strident and Lundy's light, nicely colored voice is easy on the ear. Barber, in her City Opera debut, sounded strained, but Walker handles his high tenor with finesse without making it sound like a feminine instrument. Reinhart, also making his debut with the company, displays a big but less than pliant sound.
Set designer John Conklin has supplied utilitarian movable panels covered with coffered patterns and Roman architectural fragments, pristinely lit by Mark McCullough, along with such props as monumental busts of the Caesars, a sarcophagus-style bathtub, and a classic divan. Jess Goldstein's eclectic costumes are detailed and beautiful, especially the timeless flowing robes designed for Agrippina.