Lincoln Center’s recent Handel Festival, if that’s the right word for such a scattershot mini-survey, brought some good things, most notably the belated New York debut of Les Musiciens du Louvre, a period-instrument orchestra founded in 1982 in Grenoble by Marc Minkowski. Their program in Alice Tully Hall – more Bach (Cantata No. 82) and Rameau (a suite from Les Boréades) than Handel (a concerto grosso and three arias sung by Anne Sofie von Otter) – was played with exquisite instrumental refinement, rhythmic buoyancy, and expressive rhetoric.
Like all the best conductors pegged as specialists, Minkowski really isn’t one – his Offenbach (on disc at least) is no less idiomatic than his Bach, and I wouldn’t mind hearing his Beethoven. He should be invited back to conduct our major orchestras as soon as possible. I was sorely disappointed in Von Otter, though, whose voice sounded uncharacteristically colorless and unfocused, with most of the coloratura shamelessly faked. The audience, however, received her with rapture.
Helping to fill out the Handelian picture, the City Opera has imported last summer’s Glimmerglass-updated production of Agrippina to the State Theater. The show has been tightened and streamlined considerably since I saw it in August, and at least one bit of casting is wonderfully improved. Brenda Harris in the title role is a marvel of comic irony and glamorous deviousness, a perfect combination to put over director Lillian Groag’s notion that the composer’s youthful jeu d’esprit is actually a Hollywood screwball comedy in disguise. Harris looks great in Jess Goldstein’s Joan Collins gowns, she packs a mean pistol, and she even sings the florid music with considerable grace and élan.
The best ingredient of the Glimmerglass edition – countertenor David Walker’s suavely sung and engagingly acted Ottone – has been preserved, while the rest of the cast at least finds the fun of the piece even if the performance as a whole is not on the same high vocal or musical level as past City Opera Handel triumphs. Conductor Jane Glover keeps everything on track, but she makes what’s left of the heavily cut score sound very dull and characterless.
at Lincoln Center
at the City Opera.