“Agrippina” closes FGO season with Handel in Hollywood

By Lawrence Budmen

Kenneth Tarver as Nerone and Christine Lyons in the title role of Handel’s Agrippina at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Edward Leal

Productions of operas by George Frideric Handel are a rarity in South Florida. Florida Grand Opera made an effort to rectify that situation with a brilliant, highly creative staging of Agrippina, which opened Saturday night at Scottish Rite Temple. 

Dating from 1709 with a sardonic libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimari, Agrippina is Handel’s third opera and one of his finest. The tale centers around the title character’s scheming to have her son Nerone ascend the Roman throne when she hears a false report that her husband Claudio has perished at sea. Despite constant thwarting of her plans, she eventually succeeds. There are no real heroes in this drama of political jockeying for position, whether in the state or the boudoir. Handel embellishes this pessimistic drama with an inspired and delightfully varied series of arias which are treacherously difficult for the singers. 

Jeffrey Buchman’s striking production takes place on a 1930’s Hollywood film set where a costume drama set in the Regency period (inspired by the hit Netflix series Bridgerton) is being produced. A demanding director, camera and lighting crew, stage hands, makeup artist and script girl all amble about the stage as the drama is being presented. The recitatives and arias are divided between rehearsals, filmed takes and script readings. Fast paced and witty, the play within a theatrical presentation moves adroitly, peppered by humor and the idiosyncratic behavior of the movie stars. 

For the most part, a talented cast manages to meet the music on its own terms, aided by stylish direction from the pit.

As Agrippina, the most cold-blooded and conniving operatic anti-heroine this side of Lady Macbeth, Christine Lyons brings a regal bearing and opulent timbre to Handel’s showpiece solos. Her high notes cut through like steel but her soft tones caress and she can spin an eloquent, curving vocal line with skill. 

Feigning grief and friendship, Lyons effectively played off the Poppea of Flora Hawk. A charming soubrette, Hawk possesses a bright soprano sound, albeit with some hardness at the top. She deftly traced Poppea’s vengeance aria when she thinks her beloved Ottone has been unfaithful and spun roulades with grace at their reconciliation. Hawk also evidenced fine comedic skills at Poppea’s mock flirtatious dalliances with three would-be suitors.

As Nerone (whose reign would turn murderous), Kenneth Tarver took the evening’s vocal honors. The veteran singer’s heroic tenor, incisive declamation in recitatives, exact trills and ability to command the stage brought the show to a new height with his every appearance. 

This has been a strong season for Neil Nelson. The bass-baritone’s scene stealing appearances as Monterone in FGO’s Rigoletto and the voice of sleep in Kurt Weill’s Lindbergh’s Flight (performed by Orchestra Miami) scored impressively. In the pivotal role of Claudio, Nelson was every inch the Caesar of Rome, his every utterance riveting. The warmth, flexibility and depth of his vocal range were surely displayed throughout the evening.

Only the Ottone of Brennan Hall proved less than satisfying. His pleasant but small, wispy voice recalled the limited range and constricted tone of the early countertenors of the 1950’s and 60’s. He projected feelings of despair and grief in Ottone’s aria at the conclusion of the first act as the man who saved Claudio’s life has been denounced as a traitor and threatened with death. Even in this dramatic high point, Hall was sometimes inaudible despite the light instrumentation.

Erik Danielson as Lebo, Claudio’s servant, announced that the monarch was alive from the audience and provided lively interaction with the principals in a plangent baritone. As a hammy actor portraying Pallante, one of Agrippina’s ambitious admirers, Christophe Humbert, Jr got most of the evening’s laughs but he also could ably handle the leaping vocal paths of his single aria. Stephanie Doche’s richly colored mezzo made the mot of Narciso’s brief interjections.

Jeri Lynne Johnson, director of Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, led a fifteen-member Baroque ensemble in a fleet, idiomatic reading while always providing cushioned support for the singers. Tempos and accents were carefully related within and between arias. Harpsichordist Michael Thomas Asmus, cellist Keiran Campbell and theorbo player Jason Priset underlined the important recitatives. Trumpets rang forth from the hall’s balcony, adding surround sound to the presentation’s cinematic aura.

Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s elegant costumes and Kellen Eason’s period makeup and hair stylings offered a feast for the eye,  and Steve Agnew’s lighting matches the score’s shifting moods. Painted backdrops from the historic Miami temple’s Masonic collection are utilized and a large sign indicating “The End” comes down at the final ensemble, right out of classic cinema. Particularly noteworthy are the blood red background for Agrippina’s agonized dreams in Act II and the Broadway style flood lighting of the first act finale. Buchman’s theatrical visualization is both greatly entertaining and true to the drama.

There are three remaining opportunities to see this innovative, dedicated and musically inspired rendition of a major Baroque opera, a fine conclusion to a strong and adventurous FGO season.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Agrippina 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday at Scottish Rite Temple, 471 NW 3rd Street in Miami.  fgo.org

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Sun May 15, 2022
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