The Europadisc Review
Handel - Agrippina
Maxim Emelyanychev, Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Elsa Benoit (soprano), Luca Pisaron...
Composed in late 1709 when Handel was still just 24 years of age, Agrippina is reckoned by many to be his first operatic masterpiece. It was written towards the end of his three-year Italian sojourn, which had already taken him to Rome (where opera was forbidden by papal decree) and Florence (where his first Italian opera Rodrigo was produced in November 1707). Agrippina is set during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudio (Claudius), and concerns the manoeuvrings of his fourth wife, the titular Agrippina, to secure the imperial succession for ... read more
Composed in late 1709 when Handel was still just 24 years of age, Agrippina is reckoned by many to be his first operatic masterpiece. It was written towards the end of his three-year Italian sojourn, which had already taken him to... read more
Handel - Agrippina
Maxim Emelyanychev, Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Elsa Benoit (soprano), Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone), Franco Fagioli (countertenor), Jakub Jozef Orlinski (countertenor), Andrea Mastroni (bass), Carlo Vistoli (countertenor), Biagio Pizzuti (baritone), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (mezzo-soprano), Il Pomo d’Oro
Composed in late 1709 when Handel was still just 24 years of age, Agrippina is reckoned by many to be his first operatic masterpiece. It was written towards the end of his three-year Italian sojourn, which had already taken him to Rome (where opera was forbidden by papal decree) and Florence (where his first Italian opera Rodrigo was produced in November 1707). Agrippina is set during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudio (Claudius), and concerns the manoeuvrings of his fourth wife, the titular Agrippina, to secure the imperial succession for her son by a previous marriage, Nerone (Nero). The libretto, by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, is a satirical comedy, complete with a semi-farcical bedroom scene in which characters are hidden and then exposed, but all within the context of an historical opera seria mould. It is one of the best libretti that Handel set, well constructed, with enough motivation and emotional content to keep the action moving along swiftly but without too much confusion. Although a complete performance lasts well over three-and-a-half hours, the da capo arias that were a feature of the genre are notably concise, and contain some of Handel’s finest music. In fact, about 75% of that music is recycled from earlier works, a few by others but mostly by Handel himself: mainly sacred works and pastoral cantatas that he had added to his expanding portfolio while in Rome. Still, given the quality of the music itself and its responsiveness to the demands of Grimani’s libretto, it is remarkable that Handel took just three weeks to compose the score.
Agrippina was produced to huge acclaim at the grand 1400-capacity S Giovanni Grisostomo theatre in Venice, owned by the Grimani family, and ran for an astonishing 27 consecutive nights. With a cast of five principals and four far-from-negligible supporting roles, it must have been a feast for the eye and ear, and Handel’s music was particularly praised for its harmonic richness. Like Verdi’s La traviata and Don Carlos, a good performance of Agrippina needs an outstanding set of singers, which is exactly what it gets on this dazzling new recording from Erato, with the period-instrument group Il Pomo d’Oro and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev directing from the keyboard.
At its centre is the peerless mezzo of Joyce DiDonato, singing what is a soprano role with all the ease in the world, a commanding virtuosity completely in tune with the eponymous (anti-)heroine and a vast range of emotional resources. Her first aria, ‘L’alma mia fra le tempeste’ quite skips along, but it is her impassioned Act 2 aria ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’, that comes very close to stealing the show, demonstrating her incredible gift for tonal gradation to the fullest (matched, it should be said, by Il Pomo d’Oro’s equally formidable first oboist, Roberto De Franceschi). The act closes with Agrippina’s lilting ‘Ogni vento, ch’al porto lo spinga’, while her final Act 3 aria, the radiant ‘Se vuoi pace’, brings her character final resolution, the desired succession confirmed, job done.
This is much more than a one-star opera, however, and DiDonato is joined by a cracking cast who match her every step of the way in excellence. The role of her son Nerone is taken by the fabulous Franco Fagioli, his bright tones and high tessitura ideal for the role, heard at his most acrobatic in the Act 2 aria ‘Sotto il lauro ch’hai sul crine’. His da capo ornamentation (like that of the rest of the cast throughout the performance) is an absolute joy to the ear. Nerone’s rival (for power and love) is Ottone (Otho), sung with contrastingly velvet tones by his fellow countertenor, the equally impressive Jakub Józef Orliński. His anguished Act 2 aria ‘Voi che udite il mio lamento’, together with its preceding recitative, forms the emotional core of the opera, and here it receives a performance that would melt a heart of stone, desolate but with a honeyed tone fully worthy of Handel’s invention. Equally affecting is the pastoral-flavoured ‘Vaghe fonti’ just a little later, accompanied by wistful recorders, muted upper strings and pizzicato bass.
Ottone and Nerone are competing not just for political power but for the hand of Poppea, sung here with tremulous brilliance by soprano Elsa Benoit. Poppea is a complex character, by no means a shrinking violet when it comes to the plot machinations, and Benoit displays a full range of emotion, from unforced innocence to steely determination. There are sufficient opportunities for her virtuosity (notably the breezily concise ‘Ingannata una sol volta’) for her authentic substitution aria ‘Spera, alma mia’ to follow Ottone’s ‘Voi che udite’: it much better maintains the heightened intensity of emotion at this point in the story than the livelier ‘Bella pur’ which it replaced – one of many sensible editorial decisions explained in David Vickers’ excellent accompanying booklet article.
Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni makes for a suitably blustery Claudio, caught somewhere between imperial dignity and ageing fool, while bass Andrea Mastroni and countertenor Carlo Vistoli put in fine turns as the freed-men Pallante and Narciso, and to have Marie-Nicole Lemieux appear at the end of proceedings as the goddess Juno is luxury casting indeed. Emelyanychev and his band excel themselves at every turn, keeping things pacey but making plenty of expressive space where needed. The continuo playing alone is a wonder for its range of tone and texture, while the instrumental variety in the arias is brought out to the fullest, players shadowing the slightest vocal nuance with great sensitivity, highlighting the opera’s wide palette of musical colours.
At just about any place you might care to pick in the score, this recording has the listener reaching for superlatives. Moreover, there’s an additional aria and duet included as appendices; a group of engaging dances sensibly added at the end of the main action, exactly where they should be and with some claim to authenticity; a full synopsis, libretto and translations. The phrase ‘benchmark performance’ is often too easily deployed, but in the case of Handel’s Agrippina, this really could be the one. No opera lover should fail to hear it.