Thursday, October 15, 2009

Handel Rocks Malibran

Handel, Agrippina
Teatro Malibran

Handel was 24, at the tail end of a three-year sojourn in Italy, when he composed Agrippina for the Carnevale festivities in Venice. It premiered at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo on 26 December, 1709, almost exactly three hundred years ago.

I saw it performed last night at the same theater. Inaugurated in 1678, by 1730 the theater was already in decline. While Napleon closed many things, that theater was not one of them. It was restored in the 1830s and reopened as the Teatro Malibran in honor the the mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran.

Today the theater is serviceable although I have heard musicians judge the acoustic as rather dry. I enjoy it because you can see and hear well from a larger percentage of the seats than at La Fenice.

Agrippina sounded astoundingly fresh, sly, exuberant; it is forever young. The show runs four hours -- two hours of arias, two hours of da capo -- but my interest never flagged. Although one of the indispensable elements of baroque opera was lavish stage spectacle, nobody could afford to mount such productions today. But even absent spectacle, Agrippina was engaging. The production here was Philippe Starck modern and it worked just fine.

Handel's inventiveness is nothing short of miraculous. There are 47 numbers in Agrippina, almost all of them arias for one of the eight singers, and they are stitched together with recitativo that is engaging, affecting, witty. The story is a baroque fantasia on classical themes, the approach is caustic, filled with the social criticism of a Beaumarchais applied to the Roman Imperials and here played for farce. Claudio, the emperor, was a drunken oaf, Miles Gloriosus as Imperator. Agrippina, his wife, is every bit the asp as Livia in "I, Claudius", but played for laughs and the batting of her Bette Davis eyes. Nerone is an ineffectual wimp, Poppea a scheming vamp with a scared little girl inside, and Ottone, a tall hunk of manly man whose mezzo-soprano voice is at ironic odds with his Mr. Clean build and shaved dome.

Of the eight singers last night, two were female sopranos, two were male sopranos, two were mezzo sopranos and two were basses. Of the two male sopranos, Nerone -- Florin Cezar Ouatu -- was a true soprano as opposed to the richer mezzo voice of Xavier Sabata as Ottone.

Ann Hallenberg played Agrippina like a plush Bette Davis and sang the fiercely difficult music effortlessly, richly detailed and exquisitely articulated, while convincing us that she was only trying, as any mother would, to make sure that her son Nerone landed on the throne, no matter what.

Poppea, Veronica Cangemi, looked like a young Teresa Stratas, a mistress of slink and vamp in a blond wig, spinning off little Glitter-and-be-gay type showpiece arias. Ottone's aria at the beginning of act two was a breathtaking -- literally -- demonstration of breath control over extraordinarily long and melancholy legato lines, and Nerone's manic Act III aria brought cheers from the house. Each one of the cast has several arias that stop you dead with musical skill, rhythmic incisiveness, sheer loveliness of tone, or the persuasive urgency of the melody, whether melancholy, giddy, angry, jubilant, or nasty -- Machiavellian nasty-- often the case.

As was customary, Handel canniabalized his own works and everyone else's for tunes, 47 of them, each distinct melodically and rhythmically. Huge kudos to Fabio Bondi and the musicians who realized Handel's score and met his impossible demands with rich, full-bodied music making that never lost track of nuance and mood.

But the biggest kudos of all go to George Frederich. Let's talk about standing the test of time. When a baroque opera lasts for four hours, you expect to see an exodus at each of the intervals.

Didn't happen.

The music-making was of such a consistently high level, and the music of such glittering charm, that there was no reason to leave. There was no better place to be.

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