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Glorious Opera

Who could ever see Anne Ewers' brilliant production of Handel's Agrippina and still insist that the conventions of the da capo aria condemn opera seria to be dramatically static?

Ewers masterfully held the audience in the palm of her hand both between and within each aria, while Thomas Dunn's orchestra, transparent, subtle, yet vivacious, took us on a fantastic journey beyond the flesh and blood of each character, and into their psyches, their souls.

Agrippina, Emperor Claudius' wife schemes to put Nero -- her son by a previous marriage -- on the throne. Guilefully she makes Claudius believe that Ottone -- who saved the Emperor's life and who is his immediate choice for succession -- is a traitor. A series of deceits later, all ends happily: Nero gets the throne, but Poppea is released from Claudius' lustful clutch for Ottone to marry.

Janice Felty's Agrippina is indeed a nasty piece of work: Each word is articulated with firmness and resolve; even during moments of setback this Empress is planning the next ploy. Felty commands the stage, not only with stunning execution of arias, but with carefully directed body movements, thought given to the dramatic intensity of every instant. "Rely on my discretion," she cheerfully urges Ottone, bile-soaked falsehood seeping beyond her ensnared prey to her enraptured audience.

Nancy Armstrong did a beautiful job of Poppea. She is vain, she is seductive, but overcome by Handel's radiant music Armstrong's Poppea is touchingly human. Silken-voiced she sings "Love conquers you completely;" later, mistakenly believing Ottone unfaithful, she mournfully laments to him "You love your glory more than you love me"; it is in tragic, reflective voice that Handel is most penetrating, and Armstrong's open plaint was powerful.

Lorraine Hunt sang Nero sweetly, Brian Davis was strong in voice for a characterful Pallas. Richard French, alone, was a little disappointing. His diction could not match the clarity of other members of the cast; at times his singing was weak.

Ewers remained in continual control of the action; with her uncommon talent, the opera was as fresh as today. In league with an orchestra whose every phrase provided pleasure, Boston Lyric Opera Company has produced an opera that would do justice to any stage in the world; this adventurous local opera company is on strong form, and deserves Boston's attention.

John Gibbons and Daniel Stepner demonstrated that the most civilized of Sunday afternoons are spent in Remis Auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts: Their all-Mozart program was delightful. Gibbons was playing a fortepiano with a bright, dance-like tone. The instrument -- which dates from around 1815 -- has a lower resonance time than a modern concert grand, enabling a pianist to explore the finest details of Mozartian sonata form with clarity.

The program started with the Sonata in G, K. 11. Written when Mozart was 9, and relatively simple in form, the piece already exhibits quintessentially Mozartian joy, and Gibbons played it nimbly while Stepner provided a breezy violin accompaniment.

Gibbons virtuosity brought new insight to the Sonata in A, K. 305; the opening was elating, the theme and variations compelling.

But the most interesting performances came with the most mature work on the program, the Sonata in B flat, K. 454. Gibbons playing remained flowing and sweet but, with Mozart's smiling face ever remaining, we poignantly delved beneath the surface to depths of reflection that only Mozart's music can command; only in Mozart there remains no contradiction with the joy on the surface, a joy Gibbons eloquently melded with the pathos beneath. Daniel Stepner provided further illumination with his colorful violin playing; the duo in tandem proved to be a telling combination.

[it1p] Discount tickets for the Bostoin Lyric Opera Company's productions of Poulenc's La Voix Humaine and Walton's Fa,cade on October 25 will be on sale at the Technology Community Association through The Tech Performing Arts Series.[it0]

Jonathan Richmond->