Ars Lyrica Enchants Houston Opera
Lovers with Its Sparkling Production of
Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts was the place to be on Friday, November 16, 2018 and Sunday, November 18, 2018 when Ars Lyrica Houston (ALH) presented Agrippina, its first production of a full-length Baroque Opera. Founded in 1998 by harpsichordist and conductor Matthew Dirst, ALH presents a diverse array of music from the 17th and 18th centuries on period instruments. The theater was electrified by the performance of Handel’s first operatic masterpiece from the moment the curtain went up on the eye-catching stage set until it went down for the last time.
This rendering of the operatic comedy transported audience members to the lavish Great Gatsby era, focusing on a variety of scheming characters culled from Ancient Rome. Agrippina, the central character, is the wife of Emperor Claudio and mother to Nerone, her son from a previous marriage, whom she desperately wants to take Claudio’s place as emperor. In the first of many lies, Agrippina tells Nerone that Claudio has drowned at sea. After Agrippina engages in a little harmless flirtation with Pallante and Narciso, two freedmen of the imperial household, to help her put Nerone on the throne, and a quick coronation, the scene is set for first-class intrigue.
At the heart of the opera is a love story involving the beautiful and ambitious Poppea and the love-sick Ottone, an officer in the royal army and the man responsible for Claudio being alive. As the plot thickens, the star-crossed lovers, and everyone else in the royal household, become entangled in Agrippina’s scheming ways. When Agrippina’s deceptions are finally exposed, Claudio arranges for a test to determine the true nature of everyone’s desires.
Written as a sendup of Ancient Rome, Handel’s opera turns historical archetypes into complicated human beings struggling for their own survival and doing just about anything they think is necessary to achieve it. A rousing success from the moment it opened to Venetian audiences on December 26, 1709, Agrippina established Handel’s international reputation as an opera composer.
In the middle of the 18th century, the opera fell out of fashion. It’s modern revival occurred in 1943 in Halle, Germany, Handel’s birthplace, and has been performed more recently by the New York City Opera,
the English National Opera, and the Göttingen International Handel Festival to enthusiastic audiences.
Tara Faircloth was the stage director for ALH’s ambitious flapper-era-inspired rendition, which boasted stunning costumes designed by Macy Lyne. Founder and artistic director, Matthew Dirst, conducted. The gifted A-list cast included mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky as Agrippina, countertenor John Holiday as Nerone, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Ottone, soprano Camille Ortiz as Poppea, and bass-baritone Timothy Jones as Claudio.
Agrippina’s initial audience may have seen the opera as an ironic attack on Pope Clement XI, especially given that the libretto, the text of the opera, was very likely written by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani and has been attributed to him. Grimani was an Italian cardinal, diplomat, and opera librettist who had a fondness for intrigue and a sympathy for shady characters. Today’s audiences delight in the opera for its melodic score, abundant humor, and Classic Roman intrigue. Combine these elements with the flawless casting, superb musicianship, and clever direction of the ALH production, and it is clear why Houston audiences were treated to an outstanding time at the opera.
CKW LUXE had the pleasure of talking with stage director, Tara Faircloth, about ALH’s production of Agrippina and discovered something about the thrills and challenges of taking on such a significant task. We also got Tara’s take on what she thought audience’s gained from seeing the opera.
CKW LUXE: First of all, CKW LUXE would like to congratulate you on ALH’s successful presentation of Agrippina, its first full-length Baroque opera. Can you tell our readers why you decided to set it during the Great Gatsby era, and if, by so doing, this decision brought with it any complications or challenges.
Tara Faircloth: Handel’s Agrippina is loosely based on stories of real people who lived in Ancient Rome: a group of striving, power-hungry players who are obsessed with the throne and all the luxuries it may offer. The piece has quite a few characters, and costuming them all in full Baroque regalia was a little impractical, but shifting it to the Gatsby setting offered us lots of opportunity for showing the lavish playfulness inherent in the story. It is a timeless story and does not require any magical effects or fantasy characters, so this interpretation was not particularly challenging . . . greed, lust, and ambition translate to any age!
CKW: We are also interested in the stage set and the costume design. Can you explain to our readers how they added to the story and understanding of the opera?
TF: We designed a show that is lovely and compact, full of shifting pieces that serve in multiple settings and are largely controlled by the players onstage. This allows for interesting relationship discoveries and makes the evening feel tighter and more connected. In addition, the “luxurious minimalism” approach puts the focus on the acting singers and the incredible music they are singing.
CKW: Can you tell us what has to be considered when presenting a Baroque opera to a 21st-century audience? Do you have to stress some aspects over others so the audience is aware of the various nuances?
TF: Baroque opera is sometimes subject to a great deal of unflattering stereotypes: People may imagine singers in over-powdered makeup and wigs standing in one place to sing very long arias without a great deal of drama and certainly no comedy. In the world of modern opera production, this is very rarely the case! While it is true that the pieces may be long, they are very often cut down to a length more in keeping with the modern audience’s attention span. Our Agrippina features some incredibly talented singing actors behaving like real people in realistic (if extreme and/or humorous) situations . . . although they DO happen to be wearing gorgeous clothing.
CKW: Why do you think Agrippina was a good choice for ALH’s first full-length Baroque opera production?
TF: Handel is really the master of the Baroque grand opera, and Agrippina is generally thought of as his first true masterpiece in the genre. It is full of laughs, riveting characters, romance, and catchy tunes. What’s not to love?
CKW: Can you tell us what you think the audience most identified with while experiencing the opera and what they may have taken away with them after watching it?
TF: I hope it was really fun for everyone involved! The singers that Matthew Dirst assembled for this piece are some of the best Baroque interpreters in America, and it was a real treat to have them all onstage together along with the prodigiously talented players in the Ars Lyrica orchestra. Baroque specialists come to a project with a great deal of ownership and love for the craft, and I think that really shines through. We had a great deal of fun creating this show, and I hope the audience had a wonderful time sharing it with us!
Ars Lyrica Houston Opera Circle
Believing “Baroque opera offers full immersion in the world of 17th- and 18th-century culture, with elaborate scenic design, virtuosic singing, stylized dances, colorful orchestras, and profoundly human stories,” ALH is taking its first step toward presenting a full-length Baroque opera every other season with the flamboyant and entertaining Agrippina. For the 2020 – 2021 season, the company plans to mount a double bill with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and excerpts from The Fairy Queen, also by Purcell.
Staged operas put ALH on a par with larger organizations, thus increasing its profile. Producing full-length operas also allows ALH to better fulfill its mission of presenting a broad range of 17th- and 18th- century music to the city’s music lovers. Ars Lyrica Houston (ALH) Opera Circle has been created so supporters can help facilitate the ongoing production of full-length operas. Those who choose to become ALH Opera Circle sponsors will play a vital role in providing a three-year commitment toward ALH’s biennial productions of Baroque opera. Sponsorships offer a range of benefits, including behind-the-scenes access to artists, recognition, special invitations to exclusive events, and much more.
There are five sponsorship levels. Production Guarantors, help secure the future of ALH Baroque opera with a three-year commitment. Principal Artist Sponsors make a multi-year commitment toward principal artists to ensure the highest caliber of artistic excellence for ALH opera productions. Artist Underwriters provide vital multi-year funding for supporting artists and orchestra musicians. Supporting Producers provide vital multi-year funding for productions staff, sets, costumes, and lighting design. Young Opera Circle Producers is an exclusive group for opera lovers under 45.
Comments from Ars Lyrica Supporters
Robin Angly: This is an opera that has been a dream for everybody. It took us about three years to raise the money. Matthew is an absolute genius, and I just knew he would pick the right people, and he did.
Ed Hess: I enjoy artists, and I enjoy the enthusiasm and energy artists bring to me personally. Jano and John
Kelley: We are supporters of Ars Lyrica and we’ve supported this opera for three years. We’ve helped underwrite the opera and are thrilled to see it come to life and see how relevant it is to our lives in this day and age. We love the setting, the costumes, the performances, and the music.
Gabriel Loperena: I am contributing to this wonderful organization because there is nothing like fully staged opera.
Joan and Mike Weltzien: We absolutely love it, and we’ve supported Matthew Durst ever since we first heard him, because we think he’s a genius.
we think he’s a genius.