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Opera Review

Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ made stylishly comic

Caroline Worra as Agrippina and David Trudgen as her son, Nerone, in rehearsal for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Handel’s “Agrippina.’’ Caroline Worra as Agrippina and David Trudgen as her son, Nerone, in rehearsal for Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Handel’s “Agrippina.’’ (Jeffrey Dunn)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 14, 2011

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With the abundance of period instrument activity in Boston, Handel’s music has not exactly been underserved around town. Nevertheless, on Friday night, Boston Lyric Opera made a compelling argument that the composer’s operas should not become the province of period specialists alone, that they have a place as well in the repertoire of a mainstream regional company such as this one. BLO’s case came by way of a deft and often charming production of Handel’s “Agrippina,’’ sung by a gifted cast receiving strong support from conductor Gary Thor Wedow in the pit.

BLO often imports productions from other houses, as it did with the Welsh National Opera’s “Ariadne,’’ but this was more an instance of a familiar staging being brought to a new home. The current artistic regime at BLO all have strong ties to Glimmerglass Opera and by extension New York City Opera, two companies that sparked a surge of interest in Handel’s operas over the last decade. This particular production, directed by Lillian Groag, premiered at Glimmerglass in 2001 when Esther Nelson (now running BLO) served as its general director. The set — large rotating facades suggesting a modern riff on the architecture of ancient Rome — was designed by John Conklin, who now serves as BLO’s artistic adviser.

The facades (with one scenery malfunction notwithstanding) frame a visually stylish staging whose driving feature is the comedy that Groag wrings out of every available line of Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto. There are plenty of genuinely comic touches in this tale of Agrippina’s endless scheming to install her son, Nerone, as the Emperor Claudio’s successor. Groag acknowledges the libretto’s satire but chooses to ratchet up the silliness, keeping her singers busy (at times over-busy) drawing laughs throughout many of their arias. Fortunately, she plays it straight at key moments, such as the moving “Voi che udite il mio lamento,’’ the Act 2 lament sung by Ottone, the opera’s sole character with purely noble intentions. (He is deeply in love with Poppea, who cruelly spurns him after being deceived by Agrippina.)

The aria was particularly moving on Friday, thanks to the pure-voiced and uncommonly sensitive singing of the young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Ottone. He was well-matched by his Poppea, the impressive Kathleen Kim, who acted vividly and sang with a nimble, clear, gleaming soprano. David Trudgen sang well as Nerone, even if one could imagine additional dimensions to his man-boy conception of the role. Christian Van Horn was a vibrant Claudio, by turns a chest-baring lothario and moralizing sovereign. Jose Alvarez, David McFerrin, and David M. Cushing rounded out this cast. And in the title role, Caroline Worra was vocally and dramatically commanding as a freewheeling Agrippina, crazed with blind ambition for her son yet not without her own sympathetic vulnerabilities.

Handel’s score bursts with freshness and imagination and under Wedow’s direction, the BLO orchestra, playing in a raised pit, navigated it well. The opera features many prominent oboe solos, and BLO’s acting principal, Nancy Dimock, rose to the occasion.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

AGRIPPINA By George Frideric Handel

Gary Thor Wedow, conductor

Boston Lyric Opera

At: Shubert Theatre, Friday night (through March 22)