You, Claudius

Those Romans! How decadent, how corrupt, how much fun! The idea of Romans as scheming, amoral, power-hungry creatures has had a hold on our collective imaginations for a long time. It’s inspired several compulsively watchable cable series, countless movies, and of course, plenty of baroque opera seria. La Cieca’s latest assignment was for me to review Handel’s Agrippina, an opera that perhaps encapsulates every single Roman stereotype and rolls it into one opera.

The outlines of the story are “loosely based” on the infamous Roman empress Agrippina, mother of the even more infamous Roman emperor Nero. The opera begins as Agrippina receives a false letter informing her of her husband Claudio’s death. Instead of grieving for her husband, the wheels immediately begin to spin for Agrippina as she plots for her son Nero to take the throne.

In this opera, however, Nero is sort of a joke—a man-child who is no match for Agrippina’s scheming power plays. In fact, the various “men” of the opera are all sort of jokes—Claudio is clueless and besotted by Poppea. Ottone is also infatuated with Poppea. Agrippina’s only competition is in the young, nubile Poppea, who seemingly, as I said, has all of Rome at her feet.

Handel’s opera is not his most melodically inspired, but it has the virtue of an extremely strong, comical plot. It follows the formal opera seria format but the libretto has enough over-the-top ridiculousness to be accessible to complete newcomers to baroque opera.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this new DVD is the ideal introduction to this opera. Handel demands great voices and great direction, and this production, taken from some performances in 2008 from the Saarlandiches Staatstheater, is drab in both presentation and musical values. The whole opera takes place on a bare stage, with a raised platform and steps up and down that platform. The costumes are nice—a mix/match of different periods, with Nero dressed like a child jester.

But except for some of the usual disrobing (why is this such a common theme in baroque opera videos?) the director Peter Lund seems content to let the singers make some over the top arm gestures and that’s it. I kept thinking that this opera could have been a lot funnier with a stronger director. I know in baroque opera the emphasis is supposed to be on the voices, and the vocal pyrotechnics, but Agrippina has a rich storyline that deserves a much more pro-active approach.

There are some cuts in the da capo arias to keep things moving at a faster clip, but even with the cuts the performance is essentially a dull one. Susanne Geb in the title role is perhaps the most major disappointment. Her voice is light and on the shrill side, and her performance is professional but unmemorable. I see that Geb has sung Elsa, and I really can’t imagine it at all—her voice lacks color and texture.

In fact, this sounds harsh but no one really makes an impact in this video, and one wonders why it was even released after so many years in the vault. The bright spot is Elizabeth Wiles (Poppea), who best captures her character — sweet and sexy on the surface, scheming underneath. Her lyric soprano almost sounds like Beverly Sills.

The booklet does not even come with a track listing of the musical numbers, only a brief synopsis and cast-list.