Back in 2005, Boston Baroque scored a noted success with its semi-staged production of Handel’s “Agrippina,” which Richard Dyer described in these pages as “the finest local operatic performance in several seasons.”
This weekend, one decade later, Martin Pearlman and his period instrument ensemble, fresh back from a tour of Poland, returned to this early Handel masterwork. A different director oversaw this new semi-staging but the performances were once again first-rate, bringing across the youthful vigor and marvelous invention of Handel’s score, a work that marked a pinnacle of his years in Italy.
We are told by Handel’s first biographer that audiences were “thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity” of Handel’s music at the premiere performances of “Agrippina,” in Venice in 1709-10. Never mind that Handel recycled much of the material of this opera from earlier works. Nothing in the finished score feels generic or retrofitted and aria after aria seems its own occasion.
The plot centers on the various machinations of Agrippina, who schemes to install Nero, her son from a previous marriage, on the throne to succeed her husband, the emperor Claudius, who is presumed drowned at sea. All is going grandly until Claudius shows up, back from the dead, having been saved by Otho, to whom he’s now promised the throne. More scheming ensues, and Agrippina’s wiles find their match in the cunning Poppea, who also knows how to play the various male characters like a theorbo.
For his semi-staging, director Mark Streshinsky amplified any hint of antics in the libretto, and added some of his own, often drawing peals of laughter from the audience, though at times one wished he might have tried harder to follow the lead of the music. The stately ensemble number near the start of Act II, for instance, was here milked for cheap laughs, as Claudius paraded down the aisle taking selfies with members of the audience.
But Streshinsky also elicited some wonderfully vivid performances on Saturday night, starting with Susanna Phillips in the title role, vocally riveting, dramatically confident and with power in reserve. Her “Pensieri voi mi tormentate,” in which this queen of deception movingly admits to her own fears, brought some of the evening’s best singing, with Phillips’s plaintive cries eloquently echoed by the solo oboe (Marc Schachman). Amanda Forsythe owned the role of Poppea, exuding feistiness, style, and gleaming tone. Countertenor David Hansen sang an extremely agile Nero, and Kevin Deas’s Claudius had both tonal depth and good comic instincts.
Otho is the only character whose intentions are pure, and as such, finds himself buffeted by the winds of ill intention all around. Marie Lenormand took on the role and seemed slightly underpowered in this company, but her singing was tonally rich and deeply felt. Douglas Williams, Krista River, and Mark McSweeney all did well in smaller roles. Save a few passing rough spots, the orchestra under Pearlman’s baton played with precision and unflagging energy. The conductor himself was occasionally drawn into the action onstage, and at one point, tellingly, he high-fived Phillips. This was her Boston Baroque debut, but after a performance like this, one imagines she’ll be back before long.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.