We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Andrew Munn, Cody Quattlebaum, Avery Amereau, Nicolette Mavroleon, Onadek Winan, Samantha Hankey, and Jakub Jozef Orlinski (photo by Richard Termine)

It is a most unusual occurrence for us to wish to see a production a second time immediately after the first time, but if Juilliard's production of Handel's Agrippina were to be repeated we would be over the moon. Thanks to some highly creative direction by Louisa Proske, superlative singing by a dazzling cast, and impressive playing by the musicians of Juilliard 415, Handel's entry in the 1709 Carnevale season "sweepstakes" was a major hit.

From our point of view, it was a grand privilege to be among the small audience fortunate enough to get a seat in the intimate Wilson Theater. But we could not help feeling sorry for opera lovers who did not get the same opportunity. The production deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Handel was but 24 years old when he composed his first true operatic masterpiece and seems to have mastered the art of setting the Italian language, delighting the audience with nearly 50 gorgeous arias, many of them tailored from earlier works. In Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, he found a fine librettist who played fast and loose with characters known from historical documents describing the waning days of the corrupt Roman Empire.

The work, although called an opera seria, is actually a black comedy that allows us to laugh at the machinations of evil people. The anti-heroine is the scheming Agrippina herself who will stop at nothing to position her son Nerone on the Emperor's throne--a subject tackled over 60 years earlier by Monteverdi in the darker L'incoronazione di Poppea.

In the title role, originally written for the soprano voice, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey was completely convincing as the grasping Empress, always devising convoluted schemes to dispatch her many enemies whilst convincing them that she was on their side. The vocal demands are many but Ms. Hankey produced gorgeous tones and showed no evidence of fatigue or strain. Her many facial expressions and gestures revealed her character--resolute, conniving, and power mad.

As her husband Claudio, bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum turned in yet another perfect performance, nearly unrecognizable in elaborate makeup and even more elaborate wig. He created a character both bumbling and lascivious. His sound was generous and secure with a firm foundation.

Agrippina's son Nerone was portrayed as a spoiled weakling, hiding behind his mother's voluminous skirts. Soprano NIcolette Mavroleon bounded around the stage like the nasty youth he was supposed to be, playing violently with his military figures. Ms. Mavroleon handled the fioritura of her arias with great ease.

The only sympathetic character in the story is Ottone, and in this role we had the remarkable counter-tenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski. The role was written for a contralto but Mr. Orlinski sounds the way, we imagine, a castrato might have sounded (without sacrificing any body parts). There is a breadth and depth to his sound that we do not hear very often in the counter-tenor fach and it is astonishing. Equally astonishing is his physicality. When Ottone was happy, he somersaulted and cartwheeled around the stage.

Ottone is one of three suitors for the hand of the vain and superficial Poppea, the others being Claudio and Nero. The role of Poppea was performed in high style by soprano Onadek Winan who played her as a bimbo. She was particularly fine in "Vaghe perle, eletti fiori."

At first she was deceived by Agrippina's deceitful offer of friendship but the second time she too became filled with vengeance and established her own plot.

Two characters are enlisted by Agrippina to serve her ends but they too suss out her deceitfulness and rebel. The role of Narciso, written for alto castrato, was magnificently performed by mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau. The program lists her as a mezzo-soprano but our experience of her unique vocal timbre has us thinking "contralto". So many mezzos sound alike but Ms. Amereau sounds like no one else. It is a gorgeous sound and one that lingers in the ear. Furthermore, the artist had such fun with her role, creating a character as unique as her voice.

Baritone Jacob Scharfman sounded excellent in the role of Pallante, one which we believe was originally written for the bass fach. He too created a unique character, given to foppery and elaborate gestures.

As the slave/messenger Lesbo, Andrew Munn sang well and provided humor as he tried to get Claudio away from Poppea when Agrippina was approaching.

Much of the success of the creation of individual characters goes to director Louisa Proske. Co-Director of Hearbeat Opera, we have thrilled to the originality of her vision on a number of occasions. We have been highly displeased by the work of directors hauled in from film work who are ignorant of opera and create productions that may film well but are unkind to singers. On the contrary, Ms. Proske really knows her stuff and can create vivid dramatic pictures whilst maintaining the integrity of the vocalism.

Additionally, she was able to provide stage business that seemed to motivate vocal flourishes.  As an example we cite Poppea's opening a golden cask and launching into some impressive coloratura as she finds the strands of pearls

Part of the effectiveness evolves from movement training and no doubt Emma Jaster made significant contributions in establishing a unique movement style for each performer. This is particularly useful when vocal colors and phrasing are somewhat limited by the Baroque style.

Beth Goldenberg's costumes were extravagant and dazzling. Homage was paid to the Baroque period with baroque perukes and the lines of the women's gowns. The Roman period was acknowledged by the presence of togas and breastplates. Contemporary fashions made an appearance in Nerone's gold athletic shoes. In lesser hands this could have been an atrocious failure but Ms. Goldenberg's skill and taste made everything work together.

Kate Noll's set was nothing less than miraculous. With the audience seated on three sides of a rectangle in this black box theater, the center was occupied by a room with very low defining walls which were actually benches for sitting, covered with motley rugs and pillows bringing in touches of Asia and Africa. The universality of the story struck home with great force. One wonders if our country faces the same fate as the decadent Roman Empire!

Lighting by Oliver Wason was effective.

Let us not neglect the splendid playing of Juilliard 415, a preeminent period instrument ensemble. Maestro Jeffrey Grossman conducted from the harpsichord with Eunji Li on a second harpsichord. Violinists were Jeffrey Girton and Augusta McKay Lodge; violist was Alana Youssefian; cellist was Matt Zucker; bassist was Hugo Abraham. Fiona Last and Welvin Potter harmonized with the singers by means of oboe and recorder. Neil Chen played bassoon and the pair of theorbos were played by Adam Cockenham and Arash Noon.

(c) meche kroop

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