CU Eklund Opera offers “toe-tapping good music”

Handel’s 1709 opera Agrippina will be streamed starting Friday

By Peter Alexander May 13 at 9:30 p.m.

“It’s toe-tapping good music,” Leigh Holman, director of the CU Eklund Opera Theater, says. “There’s always a beat going!”

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

She’s talking about the company’s next production, Handel’s 1709 opera Agrippina, which opens in a streamed production at 7:30 p.m. Friday (May 14). The stream, which is offered on a pay-what-you-can basis, will be available here for three weeks, until 11 p.m. Friday, June 4.

The opera was rehearsed and performed with strict observance of social distance protocols. After a postponement due to the March snowstorm, two casts were filmed over a single weekend in the Music Theater of the Imig Music Building. The singers will be accompanied by a reduced orchestra of five players under the direction of Nick Carthy.

Baroque opera can be a challenge for audiences, because the stories are often based on classical mythology or, in the case of Agrippina, Roman history that may be unfamiliar to modern listeners. The music is presented in a series of arias that expose emotions, alternating with recitatives that advance the action. With all the arias structured the same, the lack of variety can be monotonous.

“That’s where I come in,” Holman says, referring to all the ways she as director can make the show accessible and more fun to watch. In the case of Agrippina, a story about the rise of the infamous Roman emperor Nero, Holman and CU have placed the production the board room of a modern high-tech firm in Silicon Valley.

For longtime PBS fans, the story of Agrippina starts up where the 1976 TV series I, Claudius leaves off. Emperor Claudius’ wife Agrippina wants her son, Nero, to be the next emperor—or in the CU production, the next CEO. When a false report arrives of Claudius’ death, she goes into overdrive trying to position Nero for the top job.

Bust of Nero at the Capitoline Museum, Rome

When Claudius turns up alive, Agrippina tries to manipulate everyone—Nero, who desperately wants to be emperor; Ottone, who is madly in love with Poppea; Claudius, who also lusts for Poppea; Poppea herself; and several minor characters—to clear the way for Nero’s ascent. After many twists and turns, Claudius realizes that Nero wants to be emperor and Ottone wants to marry Poppea, which he facilitates. Everyone is happy—for the moment. (History tells more that is not in the opera.)

In spite of the high stakes game being played by everyone, Holman insists that the opera is funny. “It’s a comedy, and we really had a good time bringing that out,” she says. “There is a pair, Pallante and Narciso, [who] are goofballs.”

At the same time, there are arias that are serious. “The aria by Ottone, when he realizes that nobody wants him and he’s left all alone—he sings this gorgeous aria and it’s one of the most touching things in the world.

“But in the next scene you’ve got goofball antics.”

Leigh Holman

Holman had to get the students to find the right groove for the opera’s comedy. “I kept saying to the students, I know this is Handel, and I know that this music is hard for you to sing,” she says. “But for those moments that are funny, don’t be too reverent!”

Handel, Holman likes to point out, wrote operas for entertainment. “This is for people to enjoy,” she says. “There are some very touching moments, but most of all it’s just entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need that right now!”

This is the third Baroque opera Holman has directed at CU. There was Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea—which takes up where Agrippina leaves off—in 2015, and Handel’s Ariodante in 2018. “Baroque opera is a challenge, because the actors, the director and the conductor can find so much,” she says. 

“There’s so much room to dig without it being handed to you. It opens up lots of different different ways to play it. I think that’s fun.”

The difficulty of having so many arias strung together, all in the same structure—diagrammed ABA—Holman sees as another challenge to the performers. She asks the singers what changes during the aria. “How does the character change in that aria,” she asks, “during A and then the different music in the B section, and then going back (to A)—why does the character do that? That gets them to think about those things.”

The singers have responded to the challenges of Baroque opera. “These students are very serious,” Holman says. “The only thing they need to do is read about the history of these characters. They’re really good about it—they seem to enjoy it.”

Holman has no doubt that people will enjoy Agrippina. “The music’s beautiful, and this is one of the greatest groups of singers we’ve had at CU,” she says. “People that are attracted to opera because they want to hear good voices, they’re going to get it. If they like good storytelling, they’ll be really happy. If they like good acting, they’re going to see students that are doing far more than I could ever imagine.

“There’s something for everyone in this production.” 

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CU Eklund Opera
George Frideric Handel: Agrippina
Performed in Italian with English titles

Leigh Holman, stage director
Nicholas Carthy, music director

Stream available at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 14, though 11 p.m. Friday, June 4.

Full cast and credits, and pay-what-you-can access to the streamed performance, are here.