Handel: Agrippina

Ulrike Schneider Agrippina, João Fernandes Claudio, Christopher Ainslie Ottone, Jake Arditti Nerone, Ida Falk Winland Poppea, Owen Willetts Narciso, Ross Ramgobin Pallante, Ronaldo Steiner Lesbo, FestspielOrchester Göttingen, Laurence Cummings
216:00 (3 CDs)
Accent ACC 26404

An excellent first recording of the new Hallische Händel-Ausgabe critical edition, edited by John E Sawyer. Agrippina is in many ways the crowning work of Handel’s Italian “finishing school” years, both musically with its refinement and reworking of earlier ideas, and dramatically with its deft handling of Grimani’s sparkling libretto. This latter especially comes across with full force under Laurence Cummings’ expert baton; the extended and extremely witty recitatives fairly crackle with energy and run directly and naturally into the many arias and ensembles. Try the opening of Act 2, and marvel at the dramatic tension that the seemingly rigid opera seria conventions can create. It begins with the whole cast on stage, for the chorus acclaiming the Emperor (shades here of a well-known Coronation anthem yet to come), then each major character in turn denounces Ottone in short, pithy arias, often without opening ritornelli, before going off one by one and leaving him finally alone, to pour out his sorrow in his searing accompagnato and extended contrapuntal ‘Voi che udite’. (Handel was to return to this structure many years later to conclude Act 2 of Tamerlano.)

By and large, the singers respond well to Cummings’ lively and dramatic direction. Ulrike Scneider is a suitably scheming Agrippina; she rises splendidly to her great scena at the end of Act 2, beginning with the tortured ‘Pensieri’ (note the condensed da capo, once she has sorted out her plans) and concluding action and Act with the foot-tapping ‘Ogni Vento’ (having arranged for the murder of a couple of her enemies!). Ida Falk Winland is fully her match as her rival Poppaea – she too has a fine moment in Act 2, where she first feigns sleep to find out Ottone’s real thoughts, then after further plotting with Lesbo and Nerone, has her extended and fully accompanied ‘Col peso del tuo amor’, with its uncanny presaging of Cleopatra’s ‘Tu la mia stella sei’.

Beside these two dramatic dames, the male parts can seem a little colourless. João Fernandes as the pompous Emperor Claudio produces fine rich bass tone, but slightly misses the delicacy of his lovesick and exquisite ‘Vieni o Cara’ in Act 2. Christopher Ainslie, as the primo uomo Ottone again sings beautifully, but doesn’t quite plumb the despairing depths of his great ‘Voi che udite’, also in Act 2. Jake Arditti does better as the young and mother-dominated Nerone (rising well to the semiquaver sequences of ‘Come nube’ in Act 3). Ross Ramgobin and Owen Willetts, as Pallante and Narciso, respectively, are appropriately sycophantic suitors for Agrippina, and Ronaldo Steiner provides buffo relief as the servant Lesbo.

The FestspielOrchester Gottingen play like angels – alert and incisive in the intensely dramatic overture, with its sudden pauses, and providing superb soloists for the many instrumental obbligati of this lovely score.

This is a live recording, and benefits immensely from Laurence Cummings’ long experience with Handel in the theatre – applause is reserved mainly for the end of scenes, rather than after every aria, allowing the splendid libretto its full effect.

Alastair Harper