Echoes of 'Dynasty' in Handel soap opera

Critic's Choice

Classical Music

April 14, 2002|By Tim Smith

Fans of the Robert Graves novel I, Claudius, so brilliantly dramatized for TV years ago, will have an automatic entry point into Opera Vivente's next production -- Handel's Agrippina. Fans of another fun old TV series, Dynasty, should have an even easier time.

Composed around 1709, at the end of Handel's three-year stay in Italy, the opera caused something of a sensation when it was premiered in Venice. Both the plot and the music were just what the public there craved -- lots of humor and irony to spice up the tale of how Agrippina, wife of Claudius, connives to get her son Nero onto the throne of Rome, lots of florid arias and colorful orchestration to provide aural delight.

Although aiming more for laughs than drama, the opera effectively puts across some darker points about human ambition and passion, too.

Never mind that a huge chunk of the score was not original; Handel, who plagiarized himself throughout his career, borrowed copiously from his early works to create the opera. The result was nonetheless remarkably fresh, with music that helps to flesh out each character, from the unfortunate Ottone to the sex-kittenish Poppea.

Opera Vivente artistic director John Bowen, who has written a new translation of the original Italian libretto (the opera will be performed in English), has updated the action to the 1980s. "Agrippina is Alexis Carrington," he says, "which fits an opera where evil is triumphant."

Although the score has been cut for this production, there will still be a little more than three hours of music. The cast includes mezzo-soprano Fenlon Lamb in the title role, bass Peter Murphy as Claudius, male soprano Marquice Alexander as Nero (a role originally written for a castrato) and Vicki Ann Jones as Poppea. Aaron Sherber will conduct.

Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. April 21 at Emmanuel Epis-copal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. Call 410-547-7997.

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