Opera Betty: Agrippina

When Nerone opens his mouth in Agrippina, you understand what happened to the Roman Empire.

Nerone is failing to launch. He lounges around in purple satin pajamas, annoying the staff and toying with lighting his mother on fire when word comes that his stepfather, Claudio, has died.

This is the beginning of Boston Lyric Opera’s Agrippina, by George Frideric Handel. From the audience’s perspective, Nerone is hardly throne fodder.

Agrippina (Caroline Worra) wants her petulant, spoiled, coke-addled son to be Emperor. As Nerone, David Trudgen minces, prances, swills (and snorts) elaborately. From the previews, I was afraid he was too grown up for the role. Was I ever wrong. He is every bit the annoying adolescent.

Agrippina enlists the help of Narciso (José Álvarez) and Pallante (David McFerrin) to help her get Nerone proclaimed Emperor. Just as she succeeds, word comes that Ottone (Anthony Roth Costanzo) saved Claudio (Christian Van Horn) and they are on their way home. To make matters worse, Claudio has named Ottone as his successor. This is not part of Agrippina’s game plan.

All three countertenors, David Trudgen, Anthony Roth Costanzo and José Álvarez, played their roles beautifully. You don’t hear countertenors every day, and yet I can’t imagine this opera without them. The vocal range is part of Handel’s wit. It’s just so…improbable.

While Nerone and Narciso are comic characters, Othone is the hero/victim. My friend whispered, “if Poppea doesn’t want Ottone, I’ll take him.” And who could blame her? Anthony Roth Costanzo, in his BLO debut, is the opera’s most likeable character with one of the sweetest voices.

Unfortunately for my friend, Poppea (Kathleen Kim) does want Ottone. She does not want Claudio and Nerone, who do want her. None of this is especially palatable to Agrippina, who uses Poppea as bait in her scheme.

As Poppea (and in general) Kathleen Kim is a woman to watch. “She’s delightful,” said the woman behind me. “What a show stealer.” I had to agree. I just saw her in New York as Chiang Ch’ing in the Met’s Nixon in China and couldn’t believe my luck at seeing her again in Boston. Kim pulled us out of our self-conscious chortles and made us laugh out loud with her character acting. The only thing better than watching her is listening to her.

Agrippina’s scheme does not work. Poppea’s does. Things get ever more complicated and convoluted as people chase and deceive one another. The antics escalate – people dive under beds and spring out of closets – until the scheming caves in on itself and we are left with a man who wants a throne and another man who wants a wife.

The costumes by Jess Goldstein are wonderful, gliding in and out of period. The characters do not play by the rules, and neither does the costuming – originally created for Glimmerglas Opera and New York City Opera.

Even the props are funny. Now that the Handel-spiked punch has worn off, I can’t say what tickled me about a painting gliding along the back of the stage on its own volition. It just did. The story snowballs until every gesture, every nuance, every out-of-context skull on a platter is inexplicably funny.

There are a few gorgeous arias that reel it back in, including Agrippina’s tender “Se vuoi pace” in Act 3. For all her antics, this is where Caroline Worra really shines.

It would be a tragedy if it weren’t hilarious. Even in its tragic moments, it winks and reminds us it is, at heart, a farce.

The tip-off is the relentlessly light-hearted Baroque orchestra. And what an orchestra. Gary Thor Wedow conducted the Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra and five-piece continuo group of period instruments. Harpsichord, theorbo, and virginals join recorder, strings, oboe, bassoon, trumpet and timpani. Where the set is simple and soaring, the orchestra is ornate and delicate. It fills in cracks and sweeps in and around the debauchery and deceit, unphased by the trickery on stage.

Throughout it all, a silent chorus provides commentary and atmosphere – peeking around walls and disappearing into shadows. Set designer John Conklin and Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel did a splendid job of keeping it simple overall, making the over-the-top elements really shine. Projected English titles were by Kelley Rourke.

A word about subtitles. The physical comedy in Agrippina makes subtitles hardly necessary. They are helpful to check in with, but not mission critical – until the end. Please, for the love of Caesar, read the subtitles at the end. Hilarious.

I give Agrippina three busts of Claudio and two laurels (that’s very, very good).

(You can read my significantly longer-winded review on www.bachtrack.com.)