NEA Institute Day 4: what's in your head

You grab your ipod. Get in the car to go to work or drive your child to school. There's music in the car as you're hurtling through time and space at 60 m.p.h. You're shuffling your ipod. Your taste is kinda eclectic. k.d.lang. J.S. Bach. Dave Matthews. Whatever. As you move along (maybe stopping at Wegmans on your way) you inhabit multiple acoustic spaces in your head. You hear Bach played in a resonant church. Norah Jones in a shoebox-sized studio. A rock band recorded live in a huge stadium. Meanwhile, all around you, exist the actual sounds of real life, the chirping of birds and buzz of traffic. For the first time in human history, we are moving through our lives while inhabiting multiple acoustic spaces. We hear Palestrina in a cathedral or Ray Charles on stage while ALSO hearing the bustle of the grocery store, too. This is a first. Ever. This is the kind of stuff I'm considering in NYC this week. An epistemology of listening. You may already know that I'm on the Upper West Side attending a NEA Institute at Columbia University on classical music and opera. I'm also having a blast, and I must thank colleague Roger Nelson for requesting information about the sights and sounds of New York. New York City is hot and humid and, therefore, smells a little oily, with a hint of urine. I miss my backyard. The good news: every corner bursts with flowers. I love that. There is fresh fruit everywhere. Walking down the street, you can smell the lilies, too. Between classes on the history of Carnegie Hall and an analysis of Mahler's 2nd, I took a walk today and saw something that totally delighted me. I walked down to St. John the Divine Cathedral (recommended by Rosemary Lillis) and saw a white peacock hanging out in a red pick-up truck. Seriously. Maybe I can include a picture for you. In that moment, I flashed on the William Carlos Williams' poem: so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Tonight I saw James Levine conduct Lucia de Lammermoor at the Met. I'll end by posting something that, honestly, may bore you. It's my review of Aggripina, an opera by Handel. Tomorrow morning I'll have this critiqued in a a workshop with writer Justin Davidson and my peers. (I'm nervous.) But one of the goals of the workshop is to improve writing about music. So here it goes. Warning: you can stop reading here! Opera ahead! Otherwise, read on and check back in tomorrow for how it goes over in the workshop. NEA Institute writing assignment #1 Brenda Tremblay October 17, 2007 A desperate 2008 U.S. presidential hopeful would be reassured to have an Agrippina working behind the scenes. Part Karl Rove, part Machiavelli, the real Agrippina manipulated the Roman political scene to gain the throne for her infamous son, Nero. She plotted, she maneuvered, and she truly existed, both in history and in the imaginations of composer George Frideric Handel and librettist Vincenzo Grimani, who brought her to life in Agrippina, an opera premiered in Vienna in 1709. The opera made the composer famous, but then it fell into obscurity for a couple hundred years. These days there is renewed interest in Handel's neglected works. In 2001, Glimmerglass resurrected the conniving Agrippina in a new interpretation. The same production recently came to New York City Opera. Brash, ironic, yet charming, Agrippina disturbs again. The action takes place in a kind of timeless cityscape accented with Roman icons. Director Lillian Groag incorporates everyday, modern rituals into the scenes, and these provide some strange juxtapositions. Nero plays Russian roulette while exulting over his future as Emperor. Poppea sunbathes with a glossy magazine while lamenting the loss of her beloved. She and Agrippina drink together, stirring their tea and clinking their china teacups in time with the music. Audience members laughed out loud, and a man in the ninth row snorted with delight. Groag once said she hoped the foibles of her characters would inspire both belly laughs and winces. She must have been pleased. The production's greatest strength lies in the director's thoughtful characterizations. Nero swaggers onto stage, lithe and insolent. Agrippina's husband, the Roman ruler Claudius, oozes his way into Poppea's bedroom with smarmy grace. Poppea, the local beauty, freezes when Claudius presents her with a huge sparkling diamond, momentarily forgetting she truly loves the only noble character, army commander Otho. In Otho's most conflicted moment, he picks up the Roman crown and weighs the heavy gold in his hands, tempted by the power it represents. Nobody's perfect. Singing the role of Otho, countertenor David Walker demonstrated flexibility, evenness of tone, and a wide range of expressive skills. In his declaration of love to Poppea, “Pur ch'io to stringa,” he transfixed the audience. As Poppea, soprano Heidi Stober is Kate Winslet with pipes, radiant and substantial. The standout vocal talent in the ensemble, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, produced a creamy, unadorned tone. The big disappointment was Agrippina herself, played by Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu. Despite acting well--she exulted and chortled and, in key moments, her eyes narrowed to slits--her voice seemed rubbery and unsupported, unable to match her imperious manner. In the pit, conductor Ransom Wilson led a small baroque ensemble, which played rhythmically tricky passages with astonishing precision. Overall, Wilson kept a brisk pace. In slow arias, soloists matched the tone of the text with sensitivity, especially during Otho's anguished moments. Bassoonist Charles McCracken offered an especially comic solo for the ridiculous Claudio, played by Joao Fernandes. A few times, the singers actually addressed the players. As the story unfolded, characters groped each other, fell in and out of bed, and moved around with athletic grace. All the while, Agrippina plays the part of a twisted fairy godmother, plotting and planning to secure the future for Nero. She lies and tricks, weaving a web of deceit her victims eventually manage to untangle. In the end, a bust of Claudius rises in the background like a full moon over Agrippina as she makes one last-ditch effort to lie her way out of trouble. Watching her, someone sings, “What nerve!” The opera's final moments inspired guffaws from the crowd, reminding everyone that, perhaps, history's bad guys are the most memorable of all.


Your Agrippina review

I loved it, and so I hope and think you'll get high marks for it.

I don't know this opera at all, but I've always loved anything Ancient Roman. Your review put me into the action and feel of the opera very well.

Looking forward to your report on the group's reaction. And your reaction to their reviews, assuming others had to do the same thing.