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 ;-> …)

About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

19 Responses to agrippina at jordan hall

  1. stray says:

    I can see why you wouldn’t want to keep the meat locker photo too long as your phone wallpaper — it is a little freaky (and VK looks altogether too into it >:)

    And I submit the confusion between Aci, Galatea & Polifemo and Acis & Galatea was not shocking — for a long time I just assumed that the latter was an English translation of the former (this is what happens in a world without liner notes). The word generic applied to Handel, though… 😯 (:P)

    Also please to disregard everything I said about Martin Pearlman on the walk up Huntington Ave. I realized on the way back to AK’s I was thinking Harry Christophers. (As you probably knew but were too polite to say.) My flakery increaseth.

    Thanks again for coming out to play! Now back to Rens-wijk to see if they really do livestream tonight’s performance…

    • thả diều says:

      ah, ok, no, i didn’t know, i assumed you know all about who is doing what in this area.. but i did know Harry Christophers had his own group formed a while back, and also remember liking his takes on Händel.. I still can’t remember if I have ever heard anything Händel played by Boston Baroque.. . Though going a bit sideway, i also recalled particularly liking more how Stephen Lord shaping his NEC orchestra in Ofeo ed Euridice compared to M.Pearlman in that same year..
      Regarding “generic” :-), i did attempt to explain last year :-), and i still think that’s how it works for me.. that unless i know the music by heart after sitting through 200 rounds, everything sounds the same at the beginning unless orchestra / singers doing something very unique to bring out the music/characters on first take :-).

      ps- unlike you, i was not confused at all between “Aci, Galatae, e Polofemo” and “Acis and Galatae”, because there is no-way a translation would including swapping out a mezzo/contralto for a soprano and a soprano for a bass 😉 (note the shocking gender change in the process)
      ps2- oh did you find out about broadcast?

      • stray says:

        I have their radio feed up right now, we’ll see if it converts to live at 7:30. They did have mics up in what appeared to be the right position last night.

        I haven’t seen any evidence of the video thing since their initial press release — and they haven’t mentioned its existence on fb or twitter, so I’m guessing that program hasn’t gotten off the ground.

        • stray says:

          k, nope, their Messiah is grinding on and on. So maybe we’ll see what the mics were for down the line.

          Radio Free 3rd Fl Republic is now switching over to Ann Hallenberg and feeding the cats.

          • thả diều says:

            🙂 . but the mic can record, that’s not a probem, as we know NEC puts up their post-rec all the time. so i’m guessing getting the “real-time” transmission going is the problem?
            Let me follow your breadcrumbs to spotify…

            ah ha!! as i suspected! her new Agrippina disc 😉 . She is performing this live toward the end of May, i was seriously thinking of attending but the gap between end-of-may and beginning-of-may is a bit too large (2+ weeks!) and there was NOTHING playing in europe! a black hole period i call it, same as last year during my travel.. perhaps they are all hiding from bloomings too!

          • thả diều says:

            after akhnaten, i switched back to A.Hallenberg here, that was some gear change :-).. but very pleasant..

            Edit: done! very nice!! and too short! 🙂 . funnily toward the end there as an aria that sounded like Vivaldi’s and for a moment i thought she was C.Bartoli!

  2. dehggial says:

    What a lovely aria that S’agita in mezzo all’onde! I didn’t know it because I’m not familiar with any of those above (not a Handel geek then!). Though he couldn’t have borrowed from Alcina and Ariodante as Agrippina was written about 25 years earlier 😉

    • dehggial says:

      I’ve had it stuck in my head so now I’m thinking is it ripping something off Il trionfo del tempo…? I’m more familiar with that one than with the others but not really familiar, just know the best arias.

      • thả diều says:

        this one was stuck in my head the entire duration of stay in London last yr, as well as the month before and after 😀 . Watch out, but the one from ‘Il trionfo ..” is also addictive, it’s the super famous one i posted with both VK and S.Mingardo singing from this post

    • thả diều says:

      ps- i didn’t resist putting that aria on 😉 (now playing round the clock on this side.. . actually the piece is very very nice, i was just babbling about it last week in super long comment, with link to the cd on spotify. she sings with quite a bit of emotion on cd due to different conductor + partner. i ended up often compared between the two (dvd vs cd))

      • dehggial says:

        it was fun listening back to back, especially seeing as how you had two both samples with her singing 😀 I might be having it stuck for a couple of days still. I love the Italian style he discarded later, it fit him well. I should get around to those works then. I only have one Agrippina from the ’80s I think, which I don’t like that much, but it’s quite obvious they did it very differently back then.

    • thả diều says:

      ps- good thing Alcina came way after, else i’d find any tiny infraction to shove an A.Harteros’ clip in 😉
      (but i now remember, in “il tempo..” he recycled music from (a) Arianna in Creta, (b) the ballet from both Alcina + Ariodante, so there might still be some hint.. i go listen to find excuse for shoving :p )

  3. operasmorg says:

    It turns out I’m not a Handel-geek either and have a lot of homework to do via Youtube. 😀 Lovely review, tho, Dr T! Almost like being there just reading!

    PS: In case you can stand more VK in the meat locker thingy, the Opernhaus has the video trailer up on Youtube ( )

    • thả diều says:

      yes Smorgy, it was the first link on this post 😉 i reallly wanted to share the Agrippina gallery from VK’s site but fb makes it very difficult.. coz i *really* like the album 😉
      ps- we had a discussion last night, Stray and I, on *how* to get our hands on in-haus videos, such as this Agrippina, it involves sleeping with the *enemies* 😉 . Stray, I’ll let it brew for the next 10 years ;-), but i must comment how well i remember your facial expression + finger pointing gesture + seriousness as we discussed this :p

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