Friday, August 19, 2016

A Weekend of Handel

The two-week American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy wrapped up last weekend with a flurry of concerts that included the U.S. premiere of Handel’s 1734 Parnasso in festa, written as a nuptial celebration piece for England’s Princess Anne and Prince William of Orange. As usual, the original instrument orchestra and the American Bach Choir were sensationally good.

The Academy vocal soloists (Suzanne Karpov, Mindy Ella Chu, Katie Clark, Ashley Valentine, Robin Bier, Emily Skilling and Christopher Besch) were very fine too, but unfortunately I didn’t stay for the second half of the piece and missed a few of their contributions. As my friend Patrick Vaz has long been complaining, starting a 3-hour concert or opera at 8PM on a weekday evening can be painful for audience members who have been up since 6AM for work, and I found myself slipping into slumberland last Friday which was not the fault of the performers. For an attentive, appreciative review of the entire concert by Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle, click here.

Kosman was not as enthusiastic about an early Handel opera, Agrippina, presented by West Edge Opera, but I thoroughly enjoyed the production at its final Sunday matinee performance.

The opera started slowly, with the introduction of Agrippina, her husband the Roman Emperor Claudio, her various adulterous lovers, her son Nero who she is attempting to elevate to the throne, along with the sexy, virginal Poppea and her many suitors. (Above is soprano Sarah Gartshore as Agrippina whose foot is being worshiped by Johanna Bronk as Narciso.)

The cast took a while to warm up, but once they did, the singing was uniformly wonderful, with special props for vocal beauty to Gartshore as Agrippina, countertenor Ryan Belongie as Ottone (above), the one decent character who of course is scorned and tormented through most of the opera by all the other plotters, Celine Ricci (above left) as a hormonal Elvis-style Nero, and Hannah Stephens as Poppea, the object of everyone’s affections, looking a bit like Stella Stevens in Palm Springs Weekend.

The direction by Mark Streshinsky was intentionally comic throughout, and there were some great flourishes, such as singers wandering through the audience throwing dollar bills in order to sway the public to acclaim Nero as the new emperor, and having Carl King as the not-drowned-after-all emperor Claudio glad-handing the audience before mounting a podium and imitating the mannerisms of a contemporary presidential candidate who shall remain nameless like Voldemort. (Joining Carl King as Emperor Claudio above is Nick Volkert as the servant Lesbo, Nikolas Nackley as Pallante, and Johanna Bronk as Narciso.) .

Besides Ottone and Poppea, the other characters are as repellent as anybody in Powder Her Face, West Edge Opera’s other opera this season about nasty people behaving badly. In another inspired touch, during the traditional Baroque Opera happy ending with everyone singing an ode of praise, the supertitles informed us about what happened next to all these historical characters, with murder and suicide the predominant motifs.

After the show at the abandoned Oakland train station, audience members and the cast mixed and mingled outside over free beer and wine, and I asked Sarah Gartshore if Nicholas Nackley had really gone the full monty during their onstage sex scene together. “No, it was a costume prop,” she replied, but then added a few other details which made Board member James Parr above gasp in amusement.

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