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New 'Agrippina'

This article was first published at The Classical Review on November 21, 2011.

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Handel, Agrippina, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, R. Jacobs
Handel composed Agrippina during his period working in Italy, for the carnival season in Venice, from Christmas 1709 into 1710. With a libretto possibly by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (Handel’s protector in Rome, although the authorship is disputed), although technically an opera seria, it has many unexpected comic elements. Productions tend to fail by over-emphasizing the burlesque aspects, while those that focus on irony and the brutal political intrigues tend to get closer to the work’s core.

As usual, Handel borrowed music from himself and from others (in this instance, Reinhard Keiser, Corelli, and Lully) when putting the opera together. It concerns the Empress Agrippina’s disingenuous machinations to place her son, Nero, on the imperial throne after the death of her husband, Claudius (who was also her uncle, and is here called Claudio). Her scheming is thrown into confusion when Agrippina discovers that Claudio is not actually dead -- a fact that fails to deter her. The plot overlaps in some ways with that of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, and the mixture of conniving and comic twists is similar.

Of Handel’s compositional breakthrough by the time of this score, scholar Donald Burrows writes that in Agrippina the composer is able to bend the da capo aria form to address his own concerns for framing the narrative drama, characterizing individual characters, and inking in appropriate moods. Conductor René Jacobs created a new edition of the opera for a production at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin in 2010, which restores the composer’s first conception of the score by undoing the substitutions and reordering of numbers undertaken for the premiere in Venice in 1709 (where previous editions have tended to take the version of the opera as performed at its premiere as the authoritative one).

The differences are most pronounced in the Third Act, and they yield some interesting results -- perhaps, as Jacobs suggests, in realizing the sleeker, more punchy work Handel envisioned before he had the usual run-ins with the whims of the operatic star system in Venice.

In addition to its musicological appeal, this is a performance of considerable beauty, thanks in no small part to the incisive and beautiful playing of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, which is arguably the best period-instrument ensemble active today. In particular, Jacobs has included all of the recitatives “of a rare expressiveness” (as he describes them in a thorough essay in the attractively presented booklet) and with not a single line cut from the libretto. Jacobs and his musicians assist the singers in getting to the dramatic heart of the recitatives by performing them with beguiling variety, switching continuo instruments (harpsichord, organ, lute, and guitar) for different characters, for example, and using a revealing range of textures and diverting rhythmic variation.

Jacobs, as usual, has assembled a fine cast, all pleasing and able voices. In the title role, soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska has a thick, low-oriented sound – the same qualities Jacobs saw in her when he cast her as Vitellia in his recording of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (Harmonia Mundi). Indeed, the emphasis on the mid- and low-range recalls the creator of the role, Margherita Durastanti, who was prima donna at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo. Pendatchanska is matched with the fluffier, slightly nervous sound of Sunhae Im as the flirtatious Poppea, a pairing also heard in the recent recording of Terradellas’s Sesostri.

Veteran bass-baritone Marcos Fink has an affecting turn as the somewhat dim, trusting Claudio, especially in the charming aria ‘Pur ritorno a rimirarvi,’ with obbligato bassoon -- Jacobs also chose Fink as the Sarastro for his outstanding recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (Harmonia Mundi). Daniel Schmutzhard, who was the Papageno on that recording, returns here in the minor role of Lesbo, Claudio’s servant. Countertenor Bejun Mehta, with a voice that may be a size too small, makes the best of the role of Ottone (Nero’s rival for the imperial throne, because he rescues Claudio from death, and for Poppea’s love -- originally a trouser role created within the limited range of the contralto Francesca Vanini-Boschi).

The cast is rounded out by the intense mezzo-soprano of Jennifer Rivera (Nerone), the slightly hooty countertenor Dominique Visse as Narciso, one of the courtiers manipulated by Agrippina (roles both created for castrati), and the rumbling bass-baritone Neal Davies as Pallante (another courtier).

Directed by Nayo Titzin, the bonus DVD, Facing Agrippina (about the Berlin production) is a pleasing lagniappe, providing a few glimpses of the strange, minimalistic staging by Vincent Boussard with stylish costumes by Christian Lacroix. Jacobs had a different Poppea for the Berlin performances, Anna Prohaska, and she sounds better in the role than Sunhae Im, at least in the excerpts on the DVD.

Handel's score

Virginia Opera production (2007)

Berlin production (2010)

David McVicar production in London (2007)

NPR coverage

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