Ars Lyrica, Houston's preeminent early music ensemble, under the sparkling direction of Matthew Dirst, has staged an utterly magnificent production of George Frideric Handel's first international smash hit: his baroque opera seria Agrippina (1709). This opera rarity is the company's first fully staged work, and it's wildly successful. It's stupendous!
Maybe you think opera seria is musty, moldy, dry as dust. It certainly can be, I don't want to fool you, for it tends to be stylized, conformist, and terribly old school. To be truthful, this antique music genre can be downright soporific, inducing sleep during the overture. But for two or three decades starting around 1700, this is what everyone knew as “opera.” Using stories from ancient history or mythic tales of gods and goddesses, early opera relied on a structure that was fairly unyielding and static.
Structured and set in its ways, opera seria was a series of arias written in ABA form – what is known as “da capo” (from the top), where a character sings a line of dialogue (A), says something else (B), then repeats the first stanza with exceptional filigree (A+). It's a showcase to show off the singer's prowess. Back then, character motivation wasn't as important as star temperament. If the composer knew what he was doing, the song might convey the character's emotional state, but usually it was just a vehicle for a particular singer's pyrotechnical display. Opera showcased the diva or divo; and composers, no matter how talented, wrote for their individual stars. In those ancient days, the chorus was nonexistent, and the entire show relied on superstar singers, usually the “castrati,” those male singers who had been surgically altered at a young age to produce ethereal sound and manly oomph. They were Baroque music's rock stars. Inconceivable as it may seem, yesteryear's opera idols were paid more per show than today's Beyoncé or Taylor Swift.
Of all the early opera masters, Handel stands tallest. He never changed opera's direction nor bucked the trends already solidified. He played by the rules. What sets him apart is his unerring ear for melody, his plangent orchestration, and how he could write an air for a particular character that sounds so apt for the drama at hand. He lived by the ABA form, but transformed it nonetheless. Listen to the silky charms of Agrippina (soprano Sofia Selowsky) as she wheedles info out of rival Poppea (soprano Camille Ortiz); or the tempestuous outbursts of Nero (powerhouse countertenor John Holiday; or the love strains from Ottone (velvety countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen), and tell me that any other composer could have described these human emotions any better.
For two centuries, Handel's operas were forgotten, overshadowed by his tumultuous oratorio Messiah and famous orchestral works such as Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Opera seria was dead and forgotten, until it wasn't. Once the “bel canto” rep of Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti was rediscovered, it took only a decade or two later until the Baroque splendors of Handel were finally unearthed. The glorious Saxon's operatic works are now undergoing a splendid renaissance with Julius Caesar, Rinaldo, Alcina, Xerses and Tamerlano joining the international rep.
With this peerless production, Ars Lyrica pays Handel the greatest homage. The show has style, wit, glorious singing, elegant design. Maestro Dirst is in love with Handel, and he makes us fall in love with him, too. Directed by Tara Faircloth, ably abetted by costumer Macy Lyne and lighting designer Frank Vela (there's no set designer listed in the program), the show is chic and full of pop and awe. Everything glistens: the gowns, the men's spats, the cushions, Nero's tie, the henchmen's vests, the multiple chandeliers. Like one of those big white sets out of a Fred and Ginger RKO fantasy, Agrippina is sleek and clean, an Art Deco dream of silver lamé and sequins. It's lovely to look at.
It's even more lovely to hear. Handel wrote for the greatest voices of his time, and maestro Dirst has assembled an incomparable young cast who easily navigates Handel's tricky tessitura and vocal barge work. (The depth, range, and facility of today's young singers would bring a blush to Handel's cheek. What he might write for them!)
While the entire cast is super, two voices stand out: John Holiday as Nero and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Otho. Both are countertenors, which means a modern “castrato” by less rigorous methods. Holiday is a force of nature, no doubt about it. His voice is supple, fierce, exceptionally beautiful, and has the power of the Radio City Music Hall organ. If there's a modern day Farinelli (the 18th century's star singer), he's it. Wonderfully dynamic, possessed of star wattage, somewhat celestial, he sings as if he had iron lungs. His showstopping aria, “Come nube,” a whirlwind of male coloratura, makes one dizzy. Cohen, while less of a powerhouse, has a melting caramel voice, handsome stage presence, and charm to spare. Among Handel's nest of vipers, Otho's the hero and Cohen sounds like it.
The problem with Agrippina is that Ars Lyrica has only scheduled two performances. Handel's having a resurgence, why miss out on one of the most fun shows of the season?
Agrippina continues at 2:30 pm, Sunday, November 18 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2400 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $23-$75.