Gifted soprano and fine conducting provide bright spots in FIU’s uneven “Agrippina”

By Lawrence Budmen

Evelyn Saavedra in the title role and Gerardo Brenes as Nero in Handel’s “Agrippina” at Florida International University Opera Theater.

Florida International University’s Opera Theater does not lack ambition. Under the direction of Robert B. Dundas, the school of music’s vocal department opted not for a tried-and-true repertoire warhorse but chose a real rarity from the Baroque era, Handel’s Agrippina for its current production. While laudable for effort, the performance Friday night was, in many ways, a catalogue of the pitfalls of producing Baroque opera in our present day and the limitations of student vocalists in this difficult repertoire.

Written for the Venetian Carnival season of 1710, the opera is a seriocomic tale of Agrippina’s scheming to place her son Nero on the throne as Emperor of Rome. When word that her husband Emperor Claudius has died proves to be untrue, the wily heroine hatches a new plan to force Claudius to abdicate, setting Nero’s rivals against each other in compromising sexual and political situations. She ultimately succeeds, Nero is acclaimed by the Roman populace, and we all know what happened next.

Handel’s score is a rich font of beautiful melody, dramatic expression and inventive instrumental writing. Not as popular as Giulio Cesare, Alcina or Rinaldo, Agrippina belongs near the top of Handel’s theatrical works, effortlessly crossing light-hearted arias with anguished, despairing monologues. That dichotomy between drama and comedic irony in both Handel’s music and Vicenzo Grimani’s libretto makes Agrippina difficult to stage and, unfortunately, Dundas’ modern-dress production failed on every level.

Jesse Drekosen’s sets and Angie Esposito’s costumes suggested the boudoirs and palaces of Hollywood and Las Vegas rather than ancient Rome. Adapting a Christopher Alden-type view of Roman intrigue, sex becomes the production’s main motivation. Claudius undresses before the courtesan Poppea and bumps and grinds accompany Handel’s rhythms. Dundas choreographs the tri-part overture as a scene in Agrippina’s bedroom and the beginning of her plot, distracting from some of Handel’s most beautiful orchestral writing.  At the conclusion, as Nero is crowned, Dundas has Claudius fall from the throne with an apparent heart attack.

Thankfully, Handel’s gorgeous score was in the seasoned hands of conductor Grzegorz Nowak. A veteran of major positions with top European orchestras, Nowak has been an important addition to the FIU faculty. His lithe, stylish conducting channeled the joy, passion and despair that runs through Handel’s writing. Even in an improvised pit at Wertheim Auditorium, Nowak achieved fine balances and drew sparkling playing from a reduced contingent of the FIU Symphony Orchestra.

Clad as a movie glamour queen, Evelyn Saavedra seemed to live Agrippina’s wild mood swings. With a lustrous soprano voice, Saavedra evoked the heroine’s wiles, anger and bleak hearted personality, coloring her vocalism expressively and tossing off the coloratura flights with zest, her top slightly edgy but not unattractive. Alone among the cast, Saavedra seemed to understand her character and Baroque musical style, ornamenting repeats artfully. She dominated every scene and exhibited impressive stamina in a long and taxing role. Agrippina’s nightmare scene, one of Handel’s most original and powerful inspirations, was sung with striking dramatic heft and passion. Saavedra is clearly a gifted young singer to watch.

Among the remainder of the cast, Rohan Smith as Claudius’ servant Lesbo, here in snazzy getup as a public relations man, made the most of his limited opportunities in well projected bass-baritone strophes. Gabriel Menendez as a song and dance man Pallante offered an adequate baritone and incisive word painting. Gerardo Brenes was a weak Nero, dramatically a cipher with a sandpaper countertenor. Anjane Girwarr exhibited a Kathleen Battle timbre but effortful high notes, her Poppea more sitcom star than courtesan.

Playing Claudius as a mobster, Darren Littman’s silent movie antics quickly grew tiresome, his grainy baritone and tendency to scoop up to notes undercutting crucial dramatic moments. Looking handsome in military uniform, Glenda Fernandez-Vega projected a noble Ottone and phrased her entrance aria elegantly but missed the pathos of her character’s lament on being banished from Rome. Sandra Andrade’s frat boy Narciso was often barely audible.

Thanks to Nowak’s masterful conducting and Saavedra’s star turn, enough of Handel’s magic came through and FIU deserves credit for presenting this masterpiece despite the less than stellar production and uneven vocalism.

The FIU Opera Theater repeats Agrippina 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wertheim Auditorium.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Gifted soprano and fine conducting provide bright spots in FIU’s uneven “Agrippina””

  1. Posted Mar 06, 2013 at 10:37 pm by Patricia

    I was not able to attend to Friday’s concert. However, I was present on the second night, with a slightly different cast. I am sorry, but I do not agree with most of the arguments presented in this review. Respectfully, I want to mention how much they have worked for this. And, that you ignore who was behind the scarce beauty you found in this production. These are students who are dealing with many other things. Of course they need feedback, but there are different ways to critique. By discouraging young singers, and by ridiculing Dunda’s image you are not building quality; you are destroying it. You are destroying the willingness of all them to keep the Bel canto alive. Thanks.

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Sat Mar 2, 2013
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