Arts & Events

New: AGRIPPINA: A Rollicking Handel Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday August 21, 2016 - 10:06:00 AM

West Edge Opera’s third and final production of this summer’s festival offered George Friedrich Handel’s Agrippina directed by Mark Streshinky and with sets designed by Sarah Phykitt. Streshinky states in program notes for Agrippina that he wanted sets to evoke Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. I suppose the sets provided by Sarah Phykitt satisfied Streshinsky, though I fail to comprehend how they added anything to an opera set in Nero’s Rome. I found the accordion-folding sets a distracting conceit that contributed nothing to this Handel opera.  

Agrippina is in many ways a kind of prequel to Claudio Monteverdi’s magnificent opera of 1642 L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Whereas Monteverdi’s opera deals with the courtesan Poppea’s opportunistic dropping of her lover Ottone to take up with Emperor Nero, Handel’s Agrippina explores the maneuvers of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, to have her son proclaimed Emperor. In these efforts Agrippina ultimately succeeds, though most of her maneuvers involve tricking Poppea and Ottone and using Nero’s lusting after Poppea to her own advantage in gaining for her son the Imperial throne. 

With the orchestra conducted by Jory Vinokour, West Edge Opera’s Agrippina offered fine singing by a uniformly excellent cast. As Agrippina, soprano Sarah Gartshore gave a lush-voiced performance, with flawless technique and fine diction in Italian. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci gave an outstanding performance in the trousers-role of Nero. Ricci’s singing was utterly gorgeous, and her acting prowess was simply stupendous! Ricci nearly stole the show! As Poppea, soprano Hannah Stephens was superb. Her bright-toned soprano rang out crystal-clear, and her acting as the beautiful courtesan desired by all the male characters was spot-on, full of demure flirtatiousness that allowed her always to remain in control of the men who pursued her.  

As for the male singers, countertenor Ryan Belongie gave an impassioned performance as Ottone, who ends up refusing the throne if it means giving up his beloved Poppea, who shares his love. In the role of Agrippina’s second husband, Claudio, baritone Carl King was excellent. When Claudio arrives in Rome to report on his success in pacifying Britain, Carl King entered from the back of Oakland’s vast abandoned train station, and he proceeded by shaking hands and greeting scores of audience members just as any demagogue would do as he made his way to the stage and mounted the podium to make a grandiose speech with extravagant hand-gestures reminiscent of Benito Mussolini. Likewise, Carl King’s singing voice was full-throated and vigorous, with fine Italian diction.  

In minor roles, baritone Nikolas Nackley was a spirited Pallante, mezzo-soprano Johanna Bronk was a fine Narciso, and baritone Nick Volkert ably sang the role of Lesbo. Lighting was by Kevin August Landesman and costumes were designed by Alice Ruiz. Especially effective was the costume for Nero, a sequined vest over a black tunic and trousers. The dramatic highlight of this Agrippina involved Nero stripping off most of his costume in his lusty haste to get at Poppea, who nonetheless rebuffs him. As Nero, Céline Ricci removed the vest and dropped her/his trousers. However, in her/his haste she/he neglected to step out of her/his trouser-legs, with the result that her/his lustful advances on Poppea were by hopping forward with trousers around the ankles, looking almost like a child hopping in a potato-sack race. This moment of hilarity brought down the house, with the audience reserving the loudest applause at the close of the opera to the well-deserving Céline Ricci for her trousers-role portrayal of Nero. Finally, conductor Jory Vinokour deserves admirable mention for leading a fairly brisk account of Handel’s tuneful Agrippina.