WITH VIGOR! Kathleen Kim’s Poppea and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s Ottone get — and deserve — the biggest hand in the BLO’s energetic Agrippina.
The sad news is that, as of September 1, James Levine will resign his directorship of the Boston Symphony. But musical life here goes on. Boston Lyric Opera is presenting (at the Shubert Theatre through March 22) Handel's first hit opera, Agrippina, a black comedy about ruthless power, lust, and the shreds of nobility. Anyone who still thinks Handel is unrelievedly solemn should rush to the Shubert for a big surprise.
In 2005, Boston Baroque gave us director Sam Helfrich's hilarious semi-staged and "modernized" production, with young Nero listening to his iPod and his monster mother, Agrippina, at her dressing table reading the Boston Globe. Since Handel's libretto is a thinly veiled political satire, I wish there'd been less farce and more satire. BLO's Agrippina, imported from Glimmerglass and NYC Opera, is also in modern drag (eye-catching glam by Tony-winning Broadway and Met costume designer Jess Goldstein), and Poppea reads what looks like Vanity Fair. Lillian Groag's staging here is also broad bedroom farce. What a missed opportunity to play Agrippina as Michele Bachmann or Nancy Pelosi, and Nero as, well, just about anyone! (Don't we need satire more than ever?) So our two recent versions have given us only half of Handel's opera — and the same half.
Many of Groag's shticks — a bubble bath, a drunk scene, cigarette lighters and loaded guns — are all too familiar, though even when they have little to do with the libretto, they're at least timed to the music. Set designer John Conklin's movable Roman geometries, with ominous Caesarian busts and columns, make animated and flexible stage pictures. (Opening night, some heavy piece fell from the top of a moving wall, narrowly missing the singers — shades of Spider-Man?)
As was the case with Boston Baroque's Agrippina, BLO's production has strong musical values. Gary Thor Wedow makes a welcome return to his old stomping grounds to lead a vigorous and shapely performance that's exciting in its speed and luxurious in its few moments of expansive poignance. The period-instrument ensemble, with an especially fine continuo section, gives him — and us — everything we could ask.
Everyone in the cast sings well, with terrific comic timing and great glee. In the title role, soprano Caroline Worra is broadly hammy — Cruella DeVille is much scarier than this arch-murderess — but she's more controlled than she was last year in BLO's production of Mozart's Idomeneo, and she gets to show off her dazzling trills. Our incestuous, omni-sexual Nero, countertenor David Trudgen, has a creamy, soft-focus tone and an impressive coloratura. He's willing to look foolish in heart-studded boxers yet never loses his sinister side. Big-toned bass-baritone Christian Van Horn makes Claudio (Claudius) a kind of predecessor of Mozart's Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, a sex addict on the make who ends up tricked by everyone he thinks he has power over. In smaller roles, José Álvarez (a third countertenor!), baritone David McFerrin, and bass David M. Cushing all make vivid showings.