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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Agrippina (1710) [217.43]
Agrippina – Della Jones (mezzo)
Claudio –Alastair Miles (bass)
Nerone – Derek Lee Ragin (counter-tenor) Poppea – Donna Brown (soprano)
Ottone – Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Pallante – George Mosley (baritone)
Narciso – Jonathan Peter Kenny (counter-tenor)
Lesbo – Julian Clarkson (baritone)
Giunone – Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo)
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. St. Giles Cripplegate, London, November 1991
PHILIPS 475 8285 [3 CDs: 74.52 + 73.43 + 69.08]

 


Agrippina was Handel’s second opera written for Italy. In fact it was one of the last works he wrote before leaving Italy. It opera was written for the San Giovanni Crisostomo theatre in Venice for the 1709/10 carnival season. One of Handel’s first popular triumphs, it was performed some 27 times.

Handel did not write many operas in Italy, mainly because he spent much of his time in Rome where the theatres were closed. Instead he produced a spectacular series of chamber cantatas, often for the same singers that he would later encounter in opera houses. These formed a remarkable training ground on which he could hone his talent.

Agrippina was the setting of a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, whose family owned the theatre where the opera was premiered. The libretto would seem to be one of the few which were specifically written for Handel. Though it deals with historical characters, it treats them very much in the manner of 17th century Venetian opera with a mixture of comic and serious situations.

This style of libretto would remain a life-long favourite of Handel’s. In London though, when turning to 17th century Venetian librettos - such as the one used for Serse - the libretto was subject to considerable change to align it closer to contemporary tastes in heroic opera.

But Agrippina has fewer such adjustments; it is constructed of many short arias mostly rather lightly scored. Few of its characters are admirable and none is treated heroically. The music generally does not touch the sublime grandeur that some of his later operas do. Instead we get a quicksilver score which reacts to the characters’ changes of mood and nefarious shenanigans.

The title role was written for Margherita Durastantini, a soprano with whom Handel worked frequently, first in Italy and later in London. She sang in a number of Handel’s Italian cantatas as well as creating the part of Maria Magdalene in La Resurrezione in Rome earlier on in Handel’s Italian visit.

Durastantini was not a high soprano and the part of Agrippina is nowadays often sung by mezzo-sopranos, though this does mean that the work is slightly over-burdened with contralto/mezzo-soprano/counter-tenor type voices. On this disc, with Nerone sung by counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin, we have three counter-tenors, one mezzo-soprano and one soprano.

Della Jones is a highly experienced Handel singer and her performance of the title role is a tour-de-force. There were odd moment when I would have liked a lighter, soprano tone but she brings a vocal warmth to the role which softens some of Agrippina’s less likeable traits. Jones dominates Acts 1 and 2 as Agrippina’s scheming articulates the plot. She is adept at both the lighter, shorter number as well as the more powerful ones which Handel allows her, such as Pensieri, voi mi tormentato her Act 2 aria sung when she thinks her schemes are coming unstuck.

As her son, Nerone, Derek Lee Ragin sings a part written for a soprano castrato. Nerone is still young in this opera and Handel uses the part’s high vocal range as part of the characterisation. Understandably, the role is generally sung on stage by women but Ragin displays a remarkably extension to the usual counter-tenor range. He is by turns thoughtful, sensitive and virtuoso, his changes of mood mirroring those of his mother. Ragin’s performance is remarkable. There are moments of understandable strain in the high-lying passages but he never compromises on the expressivity and characterisation. Rarely have I heard a high counter-tenor singing so well. The disadvantage is, of course, that the tone sounds rather more mature and less boyish than a lighter soprano but that is a small price to pay for fine artistry.

Nerone’s love interest, Poppea, is the first of what Winton Dean describes as Handel’s ‘sex kitten’ roles. She lives for the gratification of the senses. Handel would return to such a character with Cleopatra and with Semele. Donna Brown copes very well with the considerable virtuoso requirements of the role and creates an appealing character. But I could not help feeling that her voice is sometimes a little stressed at the top and her runs are a little heavy. Though Brown does not let that side down in what is a very strong cast, I have frankly heard better, lighter-voiced Poppeas.

Ottone, who is also in love with Poppea, is the only character in the opera who is not in some way despicable. Michael Chance brings to the role some of the most perfect singing on the set. He is on fine form in all his arias and certainly wins our sympathy and support. Ottone can come over as a bit of a drip, but when sung as well as this there is no chance of him losing our sympathy.

George Mosely and Jonathan Peter Kenny are Pallante and Narciso, two conspirators who Agrippina inveigles into her plotting. Handel nicely differentiates their characters - one a baritone, the other an alto. Mosely and Kenny respond well to their material and provide nicely characterised performances.

Alastair Miles is Claudio, Agrippina’s husband the Emperor. Miles makes Claudio’s bluster and idiocy all the more amusing for taking it seriously.

Amongst the smaller roles, Anne Sofie von Otter crops up at the end as the Goddess Juno and Julian Clarkson contributes a neat turn as the servant Lesbo.

John Eliot Gardiner has not committed many Handel operas to disc, but his control of the work is impressive. He keeps the tempos flowing without seeming rushed. This is especially true of the recitative, of which there is a considerable amount. He is ably supported by the fine playing of the English Baroque Soloists.

My only real complaint is that the whole recording comes over as slightly serious. If you listened without any understanding of the plot, you might miss its satirical nature. This is more easily brought out in performance, when the stage picture can help focus how the audience perceives the music. But here on disc I would have liked a little more smile in the music.

That said, this is a superbly sung and performed account of one of Handel’s first masterpieces - a highly enjoyable recording that can be recommended to experienced Handel opera fans and newcomers alike. 

Robert Hugill 

 

 


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