An Opera Fit for Broadway: Agrippina, Deliciously Tweaked

Paul Kellogg, the New York City Opera’s general director, has been eloquent about the need to relocate the company away from Lincoln Center, and until now I’ve been entirely on his side. What gives me second thoughts has nothing to do with the economics, politics or acoustics of City Opera’s widely publicized plight. The prompting comes from an event of the troupe’s own making: a new production of Handel’s Agrippina that is so exhilarating that the uncongenial State Theater disappears as if by magic. If this opera opened 20 blocks south, at the Gershwin or the Martin Beck, it would run for years.

The current revival of Baroque opera owes much to Peter Sellars, whose 1982 removal of Handel’s Orlando to a trailer camp at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida established a geographically impish and musically impeccable model for making forgotten 18th-century works with musty, classical subjects palatable to modern tastes. The Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, where Mr. Kellogg is also the artistic director, has been another leader in the revival. The Glimmerglass approach combines shards of classical imagery with contemporary manners to create a hybrid place where Handel’s musical genius can flourish alongside a tweaking of his plots. City Opera’s Agrippina , which was first staged last summer at Glimmerglass, has good sexy fun with a lurid libretto while exalting all that is stirring in Handel’s glorious music.

The driving force is the title character, wife of the Emperor Claudius, who will stop at nothing to see that her son Nero inherits his stepfather’s throne. True to postmodern formula, the curtain opens on a beautifully lit John Conklin set: the fallen head of a Roman bigwig; towering, architectural fragments; a glowing red square borrowed from Josef Albers; and, on a Napoleonic bed, Agrippina reclining like Hedy Lamarr while her darling Nero, in a Tom Wolfe white suit, gazes at her incestuously. Gleeful when she believes (mistakenly) that her husband is dead, she counsels her son, “If you want to gain power, everything is permissible.” The lady, it turns out, sleeps with a pistol; little Nero, after receiving his mother’s advice, casually drops a cigarette and stubs it thoroughly into the stage.

In short order, we are introduced to the remaining, delightfully unsavory main players in this Dallas -on-the-Tiber. Claudius makes his entrance looking like a suburban car dealer at the Saturday-night dance, dressed in a white dinner jacket he can’t wait to get out of. Ottone, his rescuer and rival, appears as a calf-eyed, ponytailed boy-next-door. And Poppea, the blond bombshell whom everyone pants for, turns up as the adorable town flirt in a succession of skin-baring outfits.

Under the wonderfully detailed direction of Lillian Groag, a veteran of many regional opera productions who is making her City Opera debut, the players each find a wealth of comic gold in the increasingly entangled race for political and sexual advantage. A moment of throbbing intensity provokes Poppea into a vigorous display of hair-brushing. As one ill-timed rendezvous follows another, a climax of sorts comes when Claudius loses control of his trousers and reveals that his Calvins are made of gold lamé. A sinister cadre of palace guards wearing gold masks and black Beefeater outfits proves adept at moving the architectural fragments into striking configurations of ghostly pomp-the best use of extras I’ve seen in quite awhile.

But the real grip of this Agrippina is musical. In the pit is Jane Glover, a canny Baroque specialist who at the opening performance propelled a small ensemble with so much feeling for the score’s underlying buoyancy that many in the audience around me began tapping their feet. To call the onstage performers “singers” is to slight the uniform charm of their acting, but sing they did, with style and beauty. The Nero of Kimberly Barber, a young mezzo-soprano, was both repellently pliant and sympathetically plaintive. Gregory Reinhart, a bass of hall-filling power, gave Claudius a ferocious virility. The counter-tenor David Walker sang Ottone with a lyrical ardor that didn’t quite conceal a nasty temper. Nancy Allen Lundy’s Poppea had both visual and vocal allure. As Agrippina, Brenda Harris served notice that she has the potential to join the procession of great American lyric sopranos, from Eleanor Steber to Renée Fleming.

In the finale of Act II, after the knots of intrigue are untangled to provide the requisite lieto fine (happy ending), the supertitles spell out what really happened to the feverishly scheming characters, beginning with Agrippina’s murder of her husband and ending with Nero’s suicide. The gap between the historical and the operatic truth is the evening’s crowning masterstroke, and it is delicious.