Young composers often court attention by sensationalizing their works. Mozart dragged a man to hell in Don Giovanni. Berlioz created a drug-induced nightmare for his Symphonie fantastique. Verdi set blood-and-guts scenarios in his early operas. But before any of these, a composer from staid Saxony, George Frideric Handel, catapulted himself into celebrity in his twenty-fifth year with an opera about skullduggery in ancient Rome.
It was to set a high bar for shock values to follow.
Composed for the 1709-10 Carnival season of Venice, Handel's "dramma per musica" Agrippina earned from its vicariously titillated audience a delirious cry of "Viva il caro Sassone!" Handel overnight became one of Europe's first international music stars. Soon, even regal London would be at his feet.
Some of history's most notorious scoundrels figure in Agrippina, with its title role inhabited by the sister of Caligula who was also the mother of a soon-to-be fiddling Nero. The opera is propelled by a throbbing libretto from Vincenzo Grimani and a host of catchy tunes from Handel, many of which he cribbed from earlier works.
The Opera UCLA production mounted over the weekend at the Freud Playhouse -- I caught Thursday's premiere -- interpolated additional Handelian material but trimmed even more, tailoring the original three acts into two. Several arias contained only the "A" section of otherwise ABA forms, giving the work thrust but reducing the extended moments of musical contemplation typical of Handel.
Unlike last spring's lavish production of Jonathan Dove's Flight, this fall's curtailed resources at Opera UCLA dictated an austere approach to Agrippina. James Darrah, a recent graduate who had directed Flight, was invited back as guest director by the program's director Peter Kazaras but this time was restricted to the Freud's stage area (UCLA's so-called "onstage arrangement"). Risers with folding chairs for an audience of one hundred were at the back of the stage facing the proscenium, beyond which the house's ghostly seats sat empty.
Darrah and his cohorts made up in flair what they lacked in fare. On the stage was designer Ellen Lenbergs' raised platform, configured as an enormous bed for the first act in Poppea's bedroom, and with Astroturf as Rome's Imperial Gardens in the second. To the side of the set was music director and conductor Stephen Stubbs' modest Baroque orchestra of eleven musicians, including himself on harpsichord. The cast wore Sarah Schuessler's modern dress (and several patterns of her undress). John A. Garofalo illuminated the performance area, with accents on props like a garden of flowers or blue-lit liquor bottles (even Roman wine was updated here). The various vocal and instrumental performers were both undergraduate and graduate students, with one from the extension program.
The opera's plot revolves around the overweening ambition of Agrippina, wife of Roman Emperor Claudio (Claudius), who wants her son by an earlier marriage, Nerone (Nero), to be designated as Claudio's successor. The storyline follows the rough contour of actual historical events, with the usual compressed timeframes, personalities, and fictional elements to fit an evening's drama. Energizing the intrigues are Agrippina's offers of sexual favors to conspirators and threats of bodily harm to those in her way.
The scene opens in the bed of Agrippina (soprano Lisa Hendrickson clad in lingerie inspired by Victoria's Secret) with her son Nerone (soprano Leela Subramaniam, in the underwear of a trouser role). The two engage in sexual horseplay reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier but with an incestuous overlay that renders the April-July romance of the Strauss opera chaste by comparison.
Believing Claudio dead at sea, Agrippina seductively lures his two valets, alternately disrobing Pallante (bass Victor Tapia) and Narciso (baritone Brian Vu), and convincing them to proclaim Nerone the new Emperor. Nerone, meanwhile, prepares for his coronation.
The arrival of a very alive Claudio (baritone Ryan Thorn), with his commander, rescuer, and now designated heir, Ottone (mezzo soprano Leslie Cook, fully trousered), causes Agrippina to shift to Plan B. She plies with liquor Claudio's jewelry-obsessed mistress, Poppea (soprano Katy Tang, also in cheek-peeking lingerie), proclaiming that her real love, Ottone, has given her over to Claudio in exchange for the throne. Much of the cast is now on the bed as tempers flare, pillows fight, and feathers fly at the release of mounting tensions (see above photo).
With Agrippina's other accusations of his disloyalty, Ottone is odd-man out by the end of Act I, all the players now turned against the only true soul in the opera. It takes Act II to untangle the intrigues. The earlier focus on Agrippina's schemes shifts to the principled Ottone's counter-measures. Poppea's opening scene initiates a promising mood of clarified perspectives that will see Ottone win back her confidence, expose Agrippina's plots, and, in his pursuit of true love over power, renounce the future throne to the crude Nerone.
At this point in the opera, Darrah makes a critical and canny editorial switch. The original clichéd ending, with Juno descending as a dea ex machina to set all aright, is jettisoned in favor of a denouement of human behavior. The final aria from Handel's earlier Il Trionfo del Tempo (already mined by him for other bits in this opera) is inserted for Agrippina. Seemingly contrite, she sings of repentance while passively letting Nerone stab to death her unwitting husband, the now extraneous Claudio. While still in this blissful state, Nerone strangles her to death as the placid instrumental strains closing her peaceful aria die out with her. Ah, family!
Handel's music throughout illustrates his talent for evocative treatments. Nerone's dotted rhythm entrance in the lower strings denotes his already sinister, degenerate pomposity. Trumpets and timpani make a brilliant appearance at the initial entrance of Claudio, announcing that he has "just conquered Britannia." (Handel may have been signaling his own intentions here.) When Poppea sings of the flames of love in her heart, Handel's violins quiver in blazing motifs. When Claudio later importunes her affections for himself, Handel's sinewy melodic line wraps its musical arms around her.
In this version, Act II opens in a much sweeter mood, with Poppea's hopeful sentiments nestled in the pastoral raptures of recorder and violin sonorities (this evening with an oboe filling in the one of recorder parts) as she sings of the prospect of her lover being innocent. Meanwhile Handel evokes the anxieties of Agrippina in sharp phrases as she sings of the unsettling thoughts tormenting her. Ottone's decision to sit silently by while Agrippina's schemes unravel around her is accompanied by a placid, confident ditty in three-quarter time.
Darrah's projected titles pared down the libretto to its essences, giving clarity to the goings on as it mixed the blunt phrases of Nerone with the elevated language of most of the protagonists.
As clever, dramatically effective, and not incidentally loads of fun as its stage concept was, the production had certain issues on opening night. The cavernous space of the Freud's back stage swallowed the musical projection of both instrumentalists and the young singers, who needed every reflected assist they could get. The opera's emphasis on drama necessarily sacrificed a certain musical subtlety. A distant coordination between the singers and the orchestra sometimes hindered good intonation. Both orchestra and vocalists occasionally tripped over rapid passagework and Baroque ornamentation was minimal. However, with the realities of rehearsal time and academic schedules, these were understandable and by no means fatal problems. Smart young performers learn and grow at every outing, so one could expect considerable improvement over the weekend.
Performances of two graduate students stood out. As the mercurial Agrippina, Hendrickson, her voice subdued during the first act but nicely opened in the second, protruded a haughty demeanor and impeccable athleticism. The determined Ottone of Leslie Cook projected a clearly focused mezzo with lovely low tones, and created a character of resilient authority and noble poise as Agrippina's adversary.
Remaining cast members were predominately undergraduates who had their current abilities stretched in their respective roles. Subramaniam's pleasant soprano had challenges in vocal runs closer to a mezzo range, but with smirking poses and an exotic visage, she nailed the immature character of Nerone. Katy Tang's pretty Poppea pinged high notes and sprinkled charm as sparkling as her jewelry, singing with less vocal focus at mid-register as she learns to extend her range. The Claudio of graduate student Ryan Thorn and the two valets, Victor Tapia and Brian Vu, proved capable protagonists with promising years of vocal growth ahead.
Opera UCLA forges on with its solid educational mission in this challenging work. Though the original Agrippina had an unusually long run of 27 performances in its Venice premiere exactly two hundred years ago, it was never revived by Handel, and is rarely performed today. Its revival here keeps alive this program's spirit of musical adventure, and the efforts of Darrah and Stubbs to make a relevant contemporary performing edition are particularly commendable.
Such an opera requires an advanced singing technique and stamina rarely possible in younger voices. However, UCLA's committed team gave the work a convincing performance, and, in turn, were provided a rewarding opportunity for musical and dramatic growth.
Photo above: Opera UCLA -- Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@artspacifica.net