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Classical Review: Boston Baroque Presents A Dramatic ‘Agrippina’

Musicians Showcase the Psychological Side of Handel

By Jonathan Richmond

Handel’s Agrippina

Boston Baroque

Martin Pearlman, conductor

Jordan Hall, Boston

Oct. 21 and 22

At first, I was aware of the austerity of the sounds coming from Martin Pearlman’s Boston Baroque ensemble, which operates in a strictly vibrato free zone according to period instrument performance practice, and then I heard only Handel’s music, to which Pearlman’s approach has given a power rarely heard.

As Cecilia Bartoli, in town for a Celebrity Series recital on Sunday, told me, the instruments in baroque vocal performances “are singers.” Composers such as Handel gave each orchestral voice characterization, and this comes through especially clearly on instruments of the time whose sounds have a more rapid fire and decay and a more distinct identity than those from their modern counterparts. The orchestra from Zurich accompanying Bartoli at her recital had a fuller sound than Pearlman’s Boston Baroque band, which he led in performances of Handel’s Agrippina on Friday and Saturday nights, but Pearlman’s sound transmitted pure emotion. After a few minutes, the audience was utterly under its spell, as Pearlman revealed Handel as a master of psychology as much as a composer with an intimate understanding of the human heart and soul.

The oboe was especially revealing in the Boston Baroque performance, but so too were the flutes — the sound from the wooden instruments is cool and penetrating. The trumpets had a heraldic directness, an irresistible voice of fate. Strings were tightly managed and brilliantly played to point at the inner drama of the music rather than at themselves. Clearly they were singing along with the characters on stage, and sharing their multicolored emotions.

If, undoubtedly, Pearlman’s extraordinary orchestra was the star of the show, the best singing in this tale of deceit, confusion, and high emotions at the time of the Roman Empire came from Margaret Lattimore, singing the role of the mistreated love-lost Otho. Lattimore brought out the psychological suffering of Otho with singing of openness and beauty; her voice blended especially well with the instrumental ones, which exposed the character’s emotions with color painting of great variety as well as sensitivity.

Twyla Robinson, as the machinating Agrippina, had some great dramatic moments as well, while Sari Gruber brought pretty and lively singing to the role of Poppea. Michael Maniaci, singing Nero, showed he is a remarkable male soprano. At the time of composition, roles such as his would have been performed by castrati, and Maniaci gives us an excellent impression of the effect, which is curiously masculine in its power. His vocal instrument is well-controlled and full of character. Kevin Deas as Claudius had his moments, but was not as consistently strong as other members of the cast.

On the downside, the semi-staging by Sam Helfrich proved to be an unwelcome distraction: it was cheap, silly, and out of tune with the music. The pre-performance lecture by Jane Bernstein was read from a script in a most uninvolved way and lacked any useful insights into the great work being offered.

Overall, however, this was a remarkable evening, one in which Martin Pearlman presented Handel as one of the greatest musical dramatists of history, and did so by revealing the inner message in music whose truth comes from the directness of pure sounds interacting to create a soundstage in the listener’s mind. This was a setting of far more vivid and fantastic imagination than could have been produced by any amount of romantic vibrato, and it transcended the misplaced physical movements we saw on stage, which luckily became irrelevant in the face of such musical glories.