Ah, Valentine’s Day: love, lust and a remorseless thirst for power. If that third item doesn’t seem in proper trajectory with Cupid’s arrow, no matter. Opera Omaha’s production of Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Orpheum Theater Friday night served up a frothy concoction full of passion and desire — if not always of the romantic variety.
The story, complex to a labyrinthine (and soap opera) degree, involves Agrippina’s efforts to make her son Nero the emperor of Rome — after first displacing Claudius, the current holder of the throne who also happens to be her husband. She accomplishes this power-hungry goal by casting a wide, manipulative net in which she ensnares anyone and everyone who might aid or hinder her, indifferent to the lives she destroys along the way.
Director James Darrah brought ancient Rome to racy contemporary life with staging that was sexy and suggestive. Scenes such as Claudius’ triumphant return to Rome and the shunning of Ottone had a cinematic feel, ones that distilled the characters’ personalities to full effect. In these instances, his directing showcased the former’s brutality when dealing with the men beneath him and the latter’s naivete concerning the machinations taking place around him.
Scenic and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, scenic and properties designer Emily Anne MacDonald and projection designer Adam Larsen created a set that combined elegant minimal lines with shifting video projections that enhanced the action dramatically. The scene in which Agrippina praises the storm that (she thought) killed Claudius, for example, featured a shifting video projection of dark storm clouds that seemed almost to engulf her, highlighting just how all-consuming her lust for power was.
Jamie-Rose Guarrine brought her sparkling, clear soprano to the fore as Poppea, the object of Ottone, Claudius and Nero’s love and lust. Whether sweetly touched by Ottone’s declarations of innocence or fiercely vowing revenge on Agrippina and her betrayal, Guarrine finely conveyed a wide range of emotions that propelled her throughout the performance. Countertenor Nathan Medley as hapless pawn Ottone played off her beautifully with a soaring, stratospheric countertenor that resounded with heart-wrenching clarity to express his bewilderment and anguish. He did a magnificent turn, particularly conveying the devastation Ottone feels when he thinks he has lost everything — and everyone — at once.
As the infamous Nero, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera played the role with swagger and delicious scene-chewing gusto. She has sung the role of Nero many times, and she’s clearly honed it to a fine point. As Nero’s stepfather, Claudius, baritone Hadleigh Adams had a delivery that was impressively full-bodied and bold. He has a gorgeous voice and performed with a confidence befitting an emperor. Moreover, he had a physical presence that was commanding and powerful and conveyed that, like Agrippina, Claudius is used to getting what he wants.
Then there is the scheming Agrippina, the titular anti-heroine played lusciously by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell. I haven’t heard such a strong mezzo-soprano in the Orpheum for a while. She sang with expressive embellishments that were richly stylish, seductive and sultry throughout — and moved her body in a similar manner. Whether seducing Narciso and Pallante (and, it is implied, her own son), Southwell demonstrated Agrippina’s ruthless use of her sexuality to achieve power — and she did it at times not by moving her body but with just a simple arch of her eyebrow.
Bass-baritone Doug Williams and tenor Zachary Wilder perfectly complemented each other as Pallante and Narciso, and their standout scene featured each being pseudo-seduced by Agrippina in her bedchamber. While the action produced many laughs, it was the delivery that demonstrated their abilities to smoothly control their voices, even amid semi-steamy action.
As a side note, I feel compelled to mention that the entire ensemble is impossibly pretty. While it’s the voices and acting that matter, of course, having a gorgeous line-up of performers makes the over three hour production all the more enjoyable.
At the end of the evening, Cupid’s arrow met its ambitious mark — getting to the hearts of opera lovers. In this regard, true passion for the production won the evening, made possible by Opera Omaha along with a lot of scheming and even more lust.
In honor of Opera Omaha’s upcoming new production, AGRIPPINA, Gala chairs Annette and Paul Smith invite you to join conductor Stephen Stubbs and director James Darrah to this event celebrating the exciting premiere.
Opera Omaha invites you to enter the world of Handel’s Agrippina, an opera about the brilliant, beautiful, but murderous mother of Rome’s most infamous Emperor, Nero. Gala guests will enjoy live performances by the stellar cast and be immersed in installation art inspired by Opera Omaha’s stunning new production.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 18, 2014, 6:00 PM
OMAR BAKING BUILDING | 4383 NICHOLAS STREET, OMAHA
hors d’oeuvres by clayton chapman of the grey plume followed by dinner and musical events throughout the evening
The newly renovated Omar Baking Building provides an intriguing new space for this truly unique event. Exquisite food will feature hors d’oeuvres by Clayton Chapman, the Chef and Owner of The Grey Plume restaurant in Omaha’s Midtown Crossing. Chapman has been recognized nationally by Bon Appétit and Saveur magazines and was nominated for awards by the James Beard Foundation annually for the last three years.
After the Gala, join Opera Omaha at the Orpheum Theater on February 14 for the unveiling of Agrippina. This elegant and edgy production is conceived by James Darrah, a Los Angeles-based director, designer, and visual artist who has brought a cutting-edge aesthetic to many of this country’s most venerated opera houses and concert halls. To lead the performances,
Zappa may strike some as an odd person to invite to the party, but for years he was a significant local presence. When conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who will conduct Wednesday’s performance) arrived here in 1991, the maverick composer was one of the first L.A. musicians to reach out to him.
More directly, in 1970 the L.A. Philharmonic and its conductor, Zubin Mehta, joined forces with Zappa and a reboot of the Mothers of Invention to premiere a chunk of 200 Motelsalongside compositions by the dean of CalArts, Mel Powell, and by Zappa’s hero, Varese. Powell — more widely known at the time as the former pianist and arranger of Benny Goodman’s Swing Era band — was so outraged by Zappa and his band that he stormed out of the venue with the tape part to his own Immobiles 1-4, preventing its premiere.
AUGUST 28, 2013 | 09:30AM PT
The history of Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels” is much like its composer; enigmatic and riddled with disparate dimensions. Originally culled from various musical scribblings written while on tour, and later, converted into a multimedia, surrealist rock symphony for film and stage, the legacy of “200 Motels” has largely stemmed from its cinematic and recorded incarnations. The 1971 film version is a bizarre, hallucinatory slab of cult kitsch, while its double-LP soundtrack exists more as a kaleidoscopic curio than a full-fledged album statement.
The subject matter is typical Zappa: odd, irreverent, and bitingly funny, chronicling his band’s descent into a state of collective madness while on the road. A partial-reading by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970 and an infamously banned 1971 performance at the Royal Albert Hall represent the only attempts to present the work as an orchestrated whole — until now.
With the work’s fragmented past firmly in mind, the L.A. Phil — in honor of the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s 10th anniversary — has decided to perform “200 Motels” in its entirety for the first time on Oct. 23. Director James Darrah has brought a fresh sensibility to the production, adding a team of designers to build sets and projection surfaces for an immersive blend of music and visuals. “It’s going to look like a combination of a film set, an art installation, an opera set, a video installation and a theater piece,” Darrah says. “The entire piece functions as this great creative outpouring from Frank, and he actually treats the visual component as though he were writing for another instrument.”
Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will be working from a newly revised version of the original score — comprising 13 orchestral suites including a truly bizarre mixture of obtuse modernism, orchestral pop, nonsensical humor, cultural commentary and kitschy rock exotica with some bracing vocal arrangements thrown in.
Salonen briefly met Zappa not long before he died in 1993 and conducted a number of his works in Europe before then. In speaking with Zappa, he observed an artist who was keenly self-aware yet far more sensitive than his iconoclastic reputation belied. Removed from its original context, Salonen sees “200 Motels” as a work of surprising depth and complexity — trading its confrontational elements for a statement of pure imagination and creative freedom.
“I would say that the outrageous aspects of Zappa are perhaps less important for today’s audience,” Salonen says. “We’re witnessing a historical moment where we can actually hear the other aspects of his music better because we are no longer stunned by the outrageousness. Reading this score now, there is a sheer richness of fantasy. He had such a vivid imagination in every way.”