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HANDEL: Agrippina

CD Button Schneider, Winland; Arditti, Ainslie, Willetts, Ramgobin, Steiner, Fernandes; FestspielOrchester Göttingen, Cummings. Text and translations. Accent ACC 26404 (3)

Recordings Agrippina Cover 316
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE 2015 HANDEL FESTIVAL IN GÖTTINGEN featured the composer’s early hit opera Agrippina, written for the 1709 carnival season in Venice. Fresh and energetic, this live recording captures the detail and dramatic depth of staged performances with particularly fine recitatives, overall pacing and well-drawn characterizations.

With its political machinations, duplicitous characters, overheard conversations and many asides, Agrippina overflows with Handel’s imaginative writing. The listener recognizes arias retooled from the composer’s earlier Roman works, as well as melodies later reused in his string of London operas. In this excellent performance conductor Laurence Cummings never goes for the cheap effect of breakneck tempos to convey excitement but instead mines each aria for kaleidoscopic instrumental colors and textures, allowing the singers freedom for expression and vocal individuality.

Mezzo-soprano Ulrike Schneider heads the cast as the scheming Agrippina, determined to place her son Nero upon the throne, duping the courtiers Pallante and Narciso and toying with Poppea, the object of everyone’s lust. Schneider’s ripe, rich voice and fearless singing bring point to Agrippina’s many arias with charismatic vocalism, whether skipping deceitfully through “Non ho cor che per amarti” or stretching the limits of straight tone in the tormented, harmonically daring “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate.” When caught in her lies, Agrippina pulls out the faux-conciliatory “Se vuol pace, o volto amato” which Schneider sings gorgeously at a leisurely pace.

Soprano Ida Falk Winland is another delight, in the role of the resourceful Poppea, singing with voluptuous phrasing and engaging musical wit. Even the short and spiky “Bel piacere,” an ungrounded piece without basslines or steady meter, exudes sensuality, while Act I’s finale, “Se giunge un dispetto,” combines a dance tempo with combative musical figures, all brilliantly and easily realized by Winland. Throughout, Winland’s rhythmic precision and shapely fioritura, along with a fine trill, reveal her sophisticated musical engagement.

As Nero, less interested in the throne than in Poppea, countertenor Jake Arditti struggles with the high range of some pieces, such as the pretty siciliano, “Quando invita la donna,” yet sings the coloratura of the climactic “Come nube che fugge dal vento” fleetly. In the alto role of the hapless pawn Ottone, countertenor Christopher Ainslie brings smooth vocalism and refined musicianship to his many arias, particularly the central lament “Voi che udite.”

Agrippina’s dirty old husband Claudio desires Poppea, and is happy to leave the throne to Ottone, who rescued him from a storm just before the opera began. After a shaky start, bass João Fernandes comes to life in Claudio’s rangy, angry “Cade il mondo,” sinking easily to low Ds, and he  brings a casual swagger to the boastful “Io di Roma il Giove sono.” As Agrippina’s dupes Pallante and Narciso, baritone Ross Ramgobin and countertenor Owen Willetts sound particularly fine in their Act II arias. Ronaldo Steiner appears in the small role of Lesbo. —Judith Malafronte 

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