OPERA NEWS - Agrippina
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In Review > North America


Juilliard Opera

In Review Juilliard Agrippina lg 517
Hankey and Mavroleon, Agrippina and Nero at Juilliard
© Richard Termine

IN FEBRUARY, the Juilliard School offered two separate presentations of Handel’s brilliant early masterpiece Agrippina—a February 11 concert performance at Alice Tully Hall, conducted by Laurence Cummings, followed a week later by three staged performances in Juilliard’s intimate Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater, conducted by Jeffrey Grossman and directed by Louisa Proske. First heard in Venice during the winter carnival season of 1709–10—when Handel was still in his early twenties—Agrippina is set in the decadent world of first-century Rome, where the ruthless Agrippina, the fourth wife (and niece) of the emperor Claudio, schemes to have her only son, Nerone, succeed her husband as emperor. Other characters tossed into the highly spiced mix of Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto are Agrippina’s ambitious and worshipful suitors, Pallante and Narciso; the irresistible Poppea; and the valiant Ottone, the only man Poppea truly loves (for the moment). 

At the matinée performance on February 18, Grossman’s leadership of Juilliard 415 was exemplary; Handel’s gorgeous score, intelligently trimmed for this production, emerged as light, fleet and sexy, with the myriad transitions from recitative to aria particularly well managed. Two singers gave completely persuasive performances—American mezzo Samantha Hankey and Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orlin´ski. Hankey zipped through Agrippina’s punishing music with beautiful tone, immaculate prosody and queenly authority; Orlin´ski’s pure, supple countertenor and forthright manner made Ottone the steady emotional center of a very tangled plot. Almost as good was French soprano Onadek Winan, whose glittering charm and fine-spun soprano were neatly suited to the temptress Poppea.

Although the energy and commitment of the entire cast were admirable, most of the singers were not well served by Proske’s jokey, but not particularly funny, production. Proske is a valuable, genuinely imaginative artist who has a good deal of admirable work to her credit, but her take on Agrippina seemed overthought and fussy; the production lacked any sense of adult sophistication or, more importantly, danger. The principal characters in Agrippina are men and women who will kill for what they want; here, they registered as smugly drawn comic stereotypes playing for very low stakes. Soprano Nicolette Mavroleon, as the sneaker-shod Nerone, struggled with the oafish conception of her character and the virtuoso demands of her music. Avery Amereau’s strikingly dark, plush mezzo made a solid impression in two roles, Narciso and Giunone; Cody Quattlebaum’s bold, stage-eating presence gave an imperial air to Claudio that his tricked-out Baroque ensemble and bouffant hairstyle did not. Scenic designer Kate Noll, lighting designer Oliver Wason and costume designer Beth Goldenberg made a virtue of the Willson Theater’s space limitations and delivered work of genuine quality.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

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