agrippina at jordan hall

Boston baroque presented a semi-staged Händel’s “Agrippina” at Jordan Hall yesterday (and today) with a strong cast:
Susanna Phillips — Agrippina
Kevin Deas — Claudius
David Hansen — Nerone
Amanda Forsythe — Poppea
Marie Lenormand — Ottone
Douglas Williams — Pallas
Krista River — Narcissus
Boston Baroque orchestra
Martin Pearlman — conductor


middle seat courtesy of Stray’s generous cousin

First a foreword: i *reallllly* like Agrippina! it’s a greaaat opera to attend live, so many plots + character layers, and can be an absolute blast when given the right staging + singers. And “historically” this opera brings back nothing but my deeep down wishes to have seen (1) the Zürich version, (2) the Paris/Brussels version, and (3) the Ghent version. Additionally, it was one of the best operas I’ve seen live here in Boston, back in 2011 with Boston Lyric Opera and also a very strong cast + orchestra (and overdose of CT). So even when trying hard to not compare, it’s inevitable :-).

First, the singers: S.Phillips is GREAT!! a very strong and descriptive voice, one which lets her play a lot with phrasing to bring out the manipulative side of Agrippina. Particularly in the slow arias where she sustained the notes and shaped them, such as in “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (A.Hallenberg, please note the orchestra here!! i’ll come back later to it). In fact most of the time when she sang i skipped glancing at the translation so as to not get distracted from the musical phrasing. She also has a large stage presence, almost giving us the impression Jordan Hall was too small for her to reveal all her facets! For this reason actually, i thought she wasn’t fully committed 100% to evilness :-), could be *much* more convincing! Oh, and for a moment i thought i finally understood the aria “Se vuoi pace”, how it fits in, but particularly the message of it as hinted in the musical phrasing.. but can’t seem to find a clip, so perhaps i’ll upload A.Hallenberg later to see if it makes sense..



Follow in parallel in strong voice + character is A.Forsythe as Poppea. I really hope Boston Baroque will release a photo of her holding the scissors at the end of her Act I aria (which I’m told by Stray is the same aria as in Almira, yet more on this later!) Actually watching both of them making me wishing we could see a full staging as they could really develop more. What i greatly enjoyed also is her phrasing during recitative. Händel is a bit hard to follow if one doesn’t phrase/shape both arias + recit, in fact a lot will eventually sound “the same” when you have everyone sighing/pouting/crying/simply-singing over recit. Thus it’s always rewarding to hear descriptive music :-). Here’s a clip of Poppea’s entrance aria while i continue to type, check out clip at the end for recycled music.

Speaking of descriptive music, K.Deas’s phrasing, i LLLLLOOOOOVVVEEE. He appeared initially with a few quite well-timed “over-the-top” comical gestures, paused, then sent out absolutely seductive phases, never has “vieni” sounded soo full of lush + irresistibility! Impressive! Same throughout the night, well timed comical gesture, gorgeous phrasing. And his tone is very warm and sustained (I hope this is the right word, some singers just have non-sustained tone such that you hear 1/2 of their voice as it oscillates in/out of audible range ??, such as the case for Pallas + Narcissus).

Another important character is M.Lenormand’s Ottone. She has very warm and pleasant tone. BUT, her musical phrasing / expression, in my opinion, is 100% mirror-imaged of the orchestra. That is one wishes to hear something more distinct, something that brings out the character.. but i couldn’t feel it. So it was pleasant singing, but much more can be done with these sad arias. I sat there feeling a bit frustrated how under-expressive the phrasing was at times, and kept thinking in head: i’d like to hear how VK does this 🙂 . So, how about a link, i mentioned before, i quite like L.Zazzo’s warm voice, he makes a very credible Ottone here without making the audience wondering why Poppea didn’t just jump ship… Equally important is how the orchestra interacts with / supports him.

While on the subject of “credibility”, it’s true these guys know how to play male characters :-), but a “girly” + “shy” + “timid” Ottone, as can be the case with a mezzo, can make it quite less convincing. So yes, do you need *this* Ottone, for example!


Marijana Mijanovic as Ottone in Zürich

Lastly, CT’s D.Hansen as Nerone. We have already covered his voice a few posts back.. but here in several occasions I quite like his phrasing, in particular the aria when he was left alone by Poppea and crawling on the floor singing about love. Very pleasant tone + phrasing, *very* nice. The “B” section of Come Nube (link to A.Bonitatibus scorching eyebrows in Zürich) was also quite nicely shaped. Apology for the “A” sections in this same aria because the viola da gamba player caught my attention and i spent the rest of that as well as Ottone’s aria (just before) staring at her 😉 .

Now, to the orchestra! To those who have read my blog posts and seen my love confession for Boston Baroque, I must say I was puzzled for half the night thinking what is “wrong” with the orchestra. It sounded.. uniformly un-inspiring. Then by the beginning of Act II, I have my own conclusion: Please bring in a different conductor! Rene Jacobs for example! 🙂 . Or as I put it more to Stray by the end of the evening: IF the BEMF orchestra was on stage, we would have heard a *very* different version tonight! and as I have gushed non-stop about the players (and maestro Pearlman) before in other works, I believe his take on Händel is underwhelmed. The orchestra, in my opinion, should play an active part in phrasing + supporting singers + building the story. Note Rene Jakobs’ orchestra in various links on this post for example, how he varied the tempo just a bit plus calling for various dynamics between string + harpsichord. Also noticeable there is how bright the strings can be at time.

The semi-staging idea is great, 2 sets of rotating frames where various “beds” + “sofas” + “desk-with-mirrors” + “podiums” are placed for singers to lounge around. Also great was S.Phillips’ engagement with the audience, first announcing to “us” Claudio’s death (and how thrilled she was), then telling us to join in for clap as Claudio arrived back.

A note on Händel’s habit of re-cycling his music, this one has complete recycled arias from (a) Aci, Galatea e Polifermo, (b) Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, (c) Almira. Funny how when first seen this live back in 2011 I was so new to Händel to not even know any of these. Good thing he didn’t borrow any from Alcina / Ariodante; it would have been too obvious. Here you really have to be a Händel’s “geek” to recognize :-).



Kasarova as Agrippina in Zürich

So, to summarize, a highly highly enjoyable evening, and as always, in the lovely company of Stray. She was shocked to hear my confusion between “Aci, Galatae e Polifermo” and “Acis and Galatea”, especially my thought of the 2nd one performed by BEMF as “generic” 😀 . Unrelatedly, *if* i have an option to put a cast together from my 2 live experiences in boston it would be to pluck S.Phillips from this one into Boston Lyric Opera’s staging. The (my) jury is still out between Kathleen Kim and A.Forsythe. It’s difficult to say because I did not get to see Forsythe in the fully staged version with different dynamics, except to say Ms. Kim absolutely brought the haus down with her riveting singing; i was super impressed as a newbie (so there’s also that, newbie’s ears vs supposedly more refined ears now 🙂 ), perhaps we can have dual cast with 1 night Ms. Kim and following Ms. Forsythe, how’s that for luxury. Lastly, Stray claimed to have *not* seen the famous photo of Agrippina with VK in the meat freezer! I’d really like to share this photo album which I uploaded to her fb page, but very frustrating that i can’t seem to share. Just in case it somehow miraculously works, here’s the link. Else how about this photo, which I made as my screen for the phone last year, but then decided to change because it looked a bit too bloody and scary for late night walk home.
(Edit: so i finally put the album up here because i really love it, staging, costume, singers ;-> …)