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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Agrippina opera in three acts (1709) [154:00]
Claudio: Gunter von Kannen (bass)
Agrippina: Barbara Daniels (soprano)
Nerone: David Kuebler (tenor)
Poppea: Janice Hall (soprano)
Ottone: Claudio Nicolai (baritone)
Pallante: Ulrich Hielscher (baritone)
Narciso: Eberhard Katz (tenor)
Lesbo: Carlos Feller (baritone)
Chorus of the Oper der Stadt Koln
London Baroque/Arnold Ostman
Directed and adapted by Michael Hampe
Stage Design by Mauro Pagano
Directed for TV by Thomas Olofsson
A stage production of the Oper der Stadt Koln
rec. live, Rokotheater Schwetzingen, Germany, 1-4 May 1985.
EUROARTS 2054538 [154:00]


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Caution should be raised at the beginning of this review in two respects.

Firstly the use of the phrase “directed and adapted by Michael Hampe”. Since 1985 marked the 2000th anniversary of the founding of Cologne, Hampe decided in this production to abandon the original finale, with its “deus ex machina” intervention by Juno to unite Otho and Poppea. Instead Claudius sends the bridegroom off to Germany to found Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (as Cologne was known in Roman times), whilst also allowing him more scope to offer Poppea dubious “comfort” in Otho’s absence. Comparing the performance with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s audio recording (Philips 438 009-2) the result is the loss of a short aria and an orchestral coda.

Secondly, Hampe decides that the roles of Nero and Narcissus, originally castrati, are instead to be assigned to tenors, whilst Otho is changed from a female voice to a male baritone. These developments, we are told, were made “in the interests of verisimilitude”.

Since there is a long tradition of musical works being altered to suit festival conditions Handel may not have raised too much of an eyebrow at Hampe’s “adaptations”.  I’m not too sure however what his thoughts might have been about the marked change in the balance of voices. I can certainly recall a BBC Radio Three broadcast where Jonathan Keates insisted that, “characters singing at the original pitch”, was a feature one had a right to expect in any Handel opera recording.

Moreover such re-disposition has unfortunate resonances of previous performance traditions. The Hallé Handel festivals, for example, were still performing the operas in this way well into the 1960s. Some viewers may feel the effect at Schwetzingen sits uneasily with an otherwise “authentic” framework.

Whatever your feelings as a listener, at least the vocal alterations are obvious from a glance at the cast list. What isn’t clear from the exterior of the box are the changes to the ending, it merely mentions Hampe’s “direction”. Given the circumstances in many record stores it’s not always possible to gain access to the notes, and I can imagine some purchasers being disappointed, not to say annoyed.

Gripes aside, I have to report that I actually enjoyed this DVD very much.

The staging has been updated, but not in a way that would frighten the horses.

The scenery retains an attractive classical backdrop, whilst the costumes are redolent of late 18th century - early 19th cnetury France, with occasional period accoutrements, such as laurel wreaths, where required. Perhaps the idea was to construct a physical temple of Napoleonic reason and then contrast it with the honeycomb of riddling deceit and intrigue, with which the drama is imbued.

And intrigue there is aplenty. Claudius is presumed drowned and in Rome his wife Agrippina sees her chance to engineer Nero, her son from her first marriage, onto the throne. She also sees it as an opportunity to get her own back on Pallas and Narcissus, the Emperor’s advisors who whilst secretly admiring her, have also thwarted her past plans. Unfortunately for her the soldier Otho dived into the sea and rescued Claudius, and in gratitude the Emperor revoked his plans and made his saviour heir to the throne. If this were not enough, Claudius, Otho and Nero all have interests in Poppea, who is more than a match for all of them. Enough said.

Fortunately as the theatre is small, with seemingly good sight lines, the cast is able to refrain from grimacing, and can suggest the myriad changes of mood and feeling with subtle facial expressions, a factor that eminently suits the medium of TV close-up. Barbara Daniels is particularly successful in this respect. Take for example her encounter with Poppea in the final aria of Act 1, (“non ho cor che per amarti”- track 32), and witness the number of subtle mood changes that pass across her countenance within the space of a few minutes.

Moreover, whilst the plot emphasises courtly machinations it is not without variation, introducing comedy (not to say farce) at various points. Witness the opening of Act 2, where the onlookers can hardly contain their boredom at the Emperor’s pompous speech of thanksgiving. An interesting comment perhaps by Hampe on the repetition of the da capo aria?

The singing throughout is generally admirable. Gunter von Kannen is a well-known    Wagnerian, whilst David Kuebler may be familiar to many from Saturday matinee broadcasts from the Met. Both men successfully scale down voices used to much bigger stages and larger orchestras. The smaller roles are also well taken, with the possible exception of Eberhard Katz who sings Narcissus. He sounds old and frail with a worn, effortful voice, although he seems to improve a little as the opera proceeds.

In all I confess to having enjoyed viewing Agrippina rather than just listening to it. One of Handel’s earliest operatic successes it undoubtedly benefits from the ability to see the back-biting, back-stabbing and general jostling for advantage and position among the characters. Just bear in mind this isn’t quite Agrippina as Handel originally envisaged it.

Ian Bailey

see also Review by Kevin Sutton






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