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.