By Rosie Rogers
Florida Grand Opera closed out its season this month with an ambitious production of Handel’s Agrippina. First performed in 1709, the 313-year-old Agrippina is a tongue-in-cheek tale of political ambition and sexual competition. This production made an admirable musical effort inside of an interesting, if somewhat confusing, framing device.
This Agrippina played out on a 1930s movie set, specifically inspired by Chicago’s rich history of black filmmaking. Director Jeffrey Buchman cited Netflix hit Bridgerton as an inspiration for the film set’s Regency costuming. Bridgerton and this Agrippina both use identity-conscious casting instead of opera’s (mostly) default race-blind casting, which here contributes to a clearly historicized setting.
Although the film studio setting was interesting in both aesthetic and theme, the framing device created as much confusion as it did intrigue. The biggest issue for me was the struggle to understand why particular scenes were on- or off-camera within the setting. Some scenes played out “in front” of the camera, with film assistants adjusting lighting rigs while the actors sang in costume. Others took place without cameras by showing the characters in 1930s dress, in rehearsal reading lines and giving one another feedback, or in their dressing rooms.
This split narration is intriguing, but I couldn’t come up with a through line to explain why particular scenes were rehearsal scenes and others were filmed. This confusion created distance from the emotion of the opera and its music. A particular example of this was Ottone’s mournful “Voi che udite il mio lamento” in Act 2. I was distracted from what should be a moment of extreme pathos and sincerity by puzzling over the presence of two non-singing characters in 1930s finery wandering onstage to watch Ottone sing into his dressing room mirror.
Despite this confusion, the aesthetic of old Hollywood glamour was cohesive and a pleasure to see. Regal costuming glittered in front of painted backdrops, rolled down slowly and deliberately in view of the audience. The setting placed a focus on the performativity of power created by the performers both on the film stage and as political players within the story of the opera.
The continuo trio of Michael Thomas Asmus, Keiran Campbell, and Jason Priset was an all-star group made up of an experienced continuo harpsichordist, a member of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, and an expert in lute and historical guitar. They were excellent throughout and provided a solid backbone for the singers and orchestra. Christopher Humbert Jr. as Pallante and Stephanie Doche as Narciso made a joyful pair, leaning into well-timed comedy and clearly having fun on stage, which is always a delight to watch. Kenneth Tarver sang Nerone with a beautiful tone, although his silky tenor occasionally lacked confidence and precision.
Christine Lyons as Agrippina made a convincing empress thanks to her grace, powerful presence, and rippling soprano. Flora Hawk’s vivacious Poppea warmed up in the second half of the show after a slightly quiet beginning. Countertenor Brennan Hall’s Ottone also lacked power and was sometimes covered by the instrumentalists, but his acting was consistently excellent.
Neil Nelson made a formidable Claudio, although I believe his projection was also hindered somewhat by the performance space. Some of these issues of balance might be due to the unconventional hall at the Scottish Rite (Masonic) Temple in downtown Miami, whose Art Deco filigree can hardly improve the acoustics.
My largest musical gripe was with the significant cuts. A performance of Handel’s original score takes three-and-a-half hours, which in this production was trimmed down to a little over two hours. I don’t have a problem with cutting down the hefty runtime, but I disagree with the specific cuts that were made.
Many of the repetitions in the da capo arias were cut, slashing their dramatic impact and satisfying conclusion. These shortened arias combined with the need to communicate the plot created a recitative- and exposition-heavy show that lacked the emotional investment needed to balance out Handel’s wordier moments.
Still, FGO’s Agrippina created a compelling setting for an ambitious show that made for an emotionally detached, but thought-provoking, experience.