Handelís Agrippina a Vocal Treat
George Frederich Handel: Agrippina
Karen Anderson (Agrippina), Svetlana Nikitenko (Poppea), Lisa van der Ploeg (Ottone), Elspeth Franks (Nero), Claudio (Maris Vipulis), Ethan Smith (Lesbo)
Pocket Philharmonic, Donald Pippin (Conductor)
In the fine Pocket Opera tradition of presenting operas outside the standard repertory, Handelís early opera Agrippina made a welcome appearance. Agrippina takes a page out of Roman history as the basis for itís story about ambition, deceit and greed. Its characters include many familiar to audiences through the I, Claudius miniseries on PBS several years ago including Claudius himself, his wife Agrippina, her son Nero from a previous marriage, the soldier Ottone and the beautiful Poppea, herself the subject of Monteverdiís masterpiece.
Pocket Opera presented the work in a concert version with Donald Pippinís droll, succinct narration supplanting the recitative (and a good many of the arias as well). Given the static nature of the opera and the demands Handel places upon his singers, this choice suited the opera well. Perhaps more unusual for Pocket Opera however was that it was sung in the original Italian rather than in one of Pippinís own witty English translations.
Even within the concert style presentation, each of the six singers managed to create clearly defined characters and displayed distinctive vocal timbres. In the title role, Karen Anderson was an imperious, haughty Agrippina. She conveyed the characterís devious, selfish machinations with regal bearing and suitable restraint. Aside from some smudged passage work, Anderson handled the vocal demands with aplomb, her soprano evenly produced and solidly supported throughout the registers.
Displaying a natural affinity to Handelís vocal writing and a wonderful portrayal of the spoiled boy who would later become a monster, Elspeth Franksí Nero was superbly sung and equally well characterized. Franksí lean, bright mezzo-soprano tore though the florid vocal writing with fearless ease and mature musicianship, particularly in her bravura third act aria.
The other mezzo in the cast, Lisa van der Ploeg contrasted strikingly with a rich warm tone and molten legato. She captured a delightful sense of irony as Ottone, arguably the only character in the opera with a redeeming virtue or two. The interplay between her and the other characters illuminated the roles with effective simplicity.
Maris Vipulisí Claudio lacked the depth of characterization that some of the other performers brought to their roles, but it rather suited Handelís portrait of this rather dense ruler. What is more, it hardly mattered with singing of this caliber and a voice of this quality. Vipulis possesses a warm, resonant bass with an easy upper register and a solid technique enabling him to sail through the vocal rigors of Handelís score with aplomb.
Svetlana Nikitenkoís high soprano was not shown to best advantage in the role of Poppea, though her performance provided a fair measure of delights. It was only in the very highest passages that one her some indication of what Nikitenko is capable of, but much of the role lies in a part of the voice that lacks fullness and adequate support. The sopranoís playful, flirtatious presence brought plenty of charm and humor to the performance.
In the smaller role of Lesbo, Ethan Smith acquitted himself honorably and managed a keen sense of character despite the infrequent appearances during the opera.
The Pocket Philharmonic, this time consisting of a string quartet, two oboes and Maestro Pippin at the Harpsichord, suited most of the score remarkably well. Handelís inventive, resourceful and varied orchestration came thorough well, the only obvious element missing being a trumpet in a couple of numbers.
The Handel purist may have shuddered at the cuts made in the score (including three, albeit minor, roles) and would consider it a "bleeding chunks" version at best. But Pocket Operaís intent is first and foremost to present opera as entertainment. By keeping down the length of the opera to under three hours and filling the time with stylish, technically strong and musically sensitive performances, Handel was well served and the audience well entertained.