- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

The Virginia Opera’s boffo new production of George Frideric Handel’s youthful “Agrippina” is everything comic opera should be. And a whole lot more.

First staged in 1709, “Agrippina” was the young German composer’s first real success as he ventured into the treacherously competitive arena of Italian opera.

Intended as a musical satire on the venality of government, “Agrippina” was and is a broadly comic retelling of events occurring in the ancient Roman court of the Emperor Claudius just before the reign of Nero.

In re-conceiving this rarely performed opera for a new audience, director Lillian Groag noted that it originally had been staged in contemporary 17th-century dress, not Roman costume.

Taking the cue, she imaginatively updated the opera to the 21st century. Unlike most directorial tinkering, this refreshing, exuberant concept is astonishingly successful, enjoyable even for those who think they hate opera.

In this production, the emperor’s preening minions prance about in designer clothing, snort upscale drugs and sleep themselves to the top without regard as to the age, gender or consanguinity of their playmates. Sound familiar?

What makes this reincarnation of “Agrippina” approach greatness is the skillful singing and dead-on comic timing of its largely youthful cast. Music, plot and setting combine to create a delightful musical oddity: a baroque opera juiced with the brassy high spirits of a Broadway musical.

Tops in this cast is the exquisite countertenor David Walker, whom we last saw in the Washington Concert Opera’s superb presentation of Handel’s “Orlando” at Lisner Auditorium in the fall.

It takes some time for contemporary audiences to warm up to a male voice singing in a flawless female register. (Handel, of course, availed himself of the castrati available in his time.)

However, Mr. Walker is exquisite, deftly moving the audience past instinctive curiosity toward an admiration of his considerable skills, particularly in this challenging, vocally acrobatic repertoire.

The rest of the cast is simply fabulous, and all seem genuinely to enjoy working together. On Sunday, they seemed to gain confidence from the reaction of a surprised and delighted audience that clearly never expected Handel to be so much fun.

Soprano Sujung Kim excels as the darkly villainous yet seductive Agrippina. Jane Redding shines as her nemesis, Poppea, and proves pretty good at pratfalls, too. Bass-baritone Derrick Parker conveys a shifty-eyed authority as a rather depraved Claudius. Countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum and bass-baritone Matthew Burns also excel in supporting roles.

Oddly, though, the comic lifeblood of this production is the youthful Filipino-Canadian tenor Jeffrey Halili. His over-the-top portrayal of the amoral young Nero relies on the high-wire intensity of his vocal and physical skills.

Although slightly inaudible in the early going, he gradually uncorked a boldly supple lyric tenor instrument as his voice had the opportunity to warm. Coupled with his character’s casually depraved attitude toward wine, women, song and drugs, he soon set the perfect mood for a bedroom farce whose frantic finale grows funnier by the moment.

The singers were supported by a balanced, understated performance from the Virginia Opera orchestra under the baton of Artistic Director Peter Marks.

Opening last weekend at the company’s home base, the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, this production of “Agrippina” will travel next to its Northern Virginia venue, George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, for a one-weekend stand.

Opera aficionados who typically avoid works that aren’t in the standard Top 40 might want to reconsider their plans for this weekend. This production very well might prove to be the hidden operatic surprise of the current season.


WHAT: The Virginia Opera’s production of Handel’s “Agrippina”

WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m. and Feb. 11 at 2 p.m.

WHERE: The George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax

PHONE: 703/993-ARTS

WEB SITE: www.gmu.edu/cfa/calendar/vaopera/


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