George Frideric Handel Agrippina (conductor: René Jacobs; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin) Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

This Agrippina is a triumph, unhesitatingly recommended.

Graham Rogers 2011

Agrippina is the second of the two operas Handel wrote in Italy at the start of his career; it helped secure his reputation beyond all doubt, a springboard from which he was to go from operatic strength to strength in London. Today, many of his later operas are more well-known and widely performed (Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Serse – to name just a few) but, thanks in large part to its sophisticated libretto by Vincenzo Grimani, very few match Agrippina for liveliness and wit. The London operas settled into a highly successful formula but, written in 1709 for performance in Venice, the unrivalled home of opera, Agrippina clearly displays its roots in the operatic tradition pioneered by Monteverdi with extensive dramatic recitatives and an imaginative variety of vocal numbers. The mature Handel’s voice is unmistakable, growing in confidence, but there is also a fascinating and exciting sense of exploration. The opera also stands out for the quality of music: the composer’s famous habit for canny recycling started early, filling Agrippina with some of the best bits from earlier works.

Few, if any, modern-day conductors could do as much justice to the opera’s youthful dynamism than René Jacobs. His usual theatrical flair is especially in evidence here as this new studio recording was made on the back of a run of acclaimed staged performances at the Berlin State Opera in 2010. There is no substitute for theatrical experience in bringing a work like this to life, and it really shows in Jacobs’ vibrant direction – and in the singing of his excellent cast. Headed by formidable soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska in the scheming title role (hugely preferable in terms of tonal beauty to Della Jones in John Eliot Gardiner’s Philips recording, but no less viscerally dramatic), the cast also boasts Sunhae Im’s agile and beguiling Poppea; Jennifer Rivera’s silky Nerone; muscular countertenor Bejun Mehta as Ottone (his poignant rendition of the Act 2 lament ‘Voi che udite il mio lamento’ is a highlight); and appropriately stentorian bass Marcos Fink as emperor Claudio.

Enlivened by a veritable battery of continuo instruments (lute, guitar, organ and two harpsichords!) the recitatives leap vividly from the speakers, and the singers relish the drama. The stylish orchestral contribution of the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin is second to none. This Agrippina is a triumph, unhesitatingly recommended.

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