OPERA OMAHA: “AGRIPPINA”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.
Tickets: $19 to $99
Information: 402-345-0606 or operaomaha.org
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It opens here on Valentine's Day with a scene from the worst Mother's Day ever: Agrippina, wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, in bed with Nero, her son from another marriage.
And things get seedier (if less incestuously suggestive) from there.
“Agrippina,” Opera Omaha's stylish new production of the 18th century Handel opera, opens Friday at the Orpheum Theater. The story revolves around the manipulative title character as she schemes to place Nero on the throne.
If that sounds like a bad thing, Peabody Southwell, the Los Angeles-based mezzo soprano and actress who plays Agrippina, would like a word.
“If I view (Agrippina) in the most distilled way, she's a feminist, and I am often cast as feminists,” Southwell said. “I think Agrippina is the earliest feminist in history that I've ever stepped into. I think at her core she's an incredibly powerful women. The dirty word of the 'strong' woman.”
Sure, Agrippina deceives everyone in her path, and, yes, maybe even seduces her own son (mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera, playing male).
But she has her reasons.
“I think the truth is she's a great ruler,” Southwell said, “and she simply has to find the male puppet through which she will lead.”
For Southwell, who's more accustomed to performing work by new composers than a centuries-old opera by a classical legend, “Agrippina” might seem like a departure. But there again, impressions can be deceiving.
“I find Handel to be an incredible invitation to return to a simplicity,” she said. “It's just so clear what he's trying to say, and it's illustrated so clearly in the music. But also the pure function of singing this style of music is one click above primitive. It's so bare and so honest that it's incredibly freeing to sing this type of music.”
She sees and hears contemporary composers trying to achieve the same effect.
“That's the trend of modern music to have this sense of incredible simplicity where the color of the voice is the vessel for the emotion, and that's exactly identical to Baroque music.”
Beyond that, the production on stage at the Orpheum even looks contemporary, with director James Darrah and his design team creating an aesthetic of elegant minimalism and trimming the work into two acts.
“It is the most approachable and the most streamlined and easy to understand kind of opera that there is,” Southwell said.
Again, ditch preconceptions. This isn't the overwrought stereotype of an opera, she said. “This is the perfect antidote to that.”