OPERA NEWS - Agrippina
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HANDEL: Agrippina

DVD Button De Niese, Bardon; Mineccia, Arditti, Verney, Pass, Kares, Seidl; Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Hengelbrock. Production: Carsen. Naxos 2.110579-80 (2), 179 mins., subtitles

Recordings Agrippina Cover 219

AGRIPPINA IS HANDEL'S masterpiece among his pre-London operas. It’s lively, tuneful and full of formal variety that looks both backward to seventeenth-century comedies and ahead toward his later, complex, psychologically telling solo scenes. The flawed, credible characters—all historical, save for the servant Lesbo—derive from Tacitus and Suetonius. The excellent, straightforward—and, rare for Handel, original—libretto came from Cardinal Vincenzo Grimaldi, a Vatican diplomat clearly conversant with court intrigues. Grimaldi tweaked the historical timeline, but we see the machinations of the aging Emperor Claudius, his ambitious wife, Agrippina, her son Nero and Nero’s rival (for the succession as well as the favors of Poppea), Ottone. In life, all died by poison, execution or suicide, but Agrippina is a comedy—except for Ottone’s anguished solos.

Until a totally gratuitous and ineffective surprise ending, the opera plays like a trendy sitcom in Robert Carsen’s production, filmed at the Theater an der Wien in March 2016. Chicly updated to contemporary Italy, with Claudio channeling Berlusconi and everyone—including copious sleek, interchangeable young extras, male and female—dressed in smart business or (for Nerone and Poppea) lounge attire, the staging has many contemporary clichés such as video screens, onstage videography, group selfies, maximal male pulchritude and arias sung in expression-robbing sunglasses. Carsen goes for much simulated sex. The fawning Pallante and Narciso perform identical stripteases before mounting Agrippina (in the opera’s second and third arias!). Bass-baritone Damien Pass and countertenor Tom Verney, who have clearly put in time at the gym, sing presentably though not exceptionally. That describes most of the vocalism here. But the meaty, amusing title role is expertly sung by long-time Handelian and bête du théâtre Patricia Bardon. The mezzo delivers an estimable star performance, despite occasional hardness at the top of a Zwischenfach tessitura, in the part originated by soprano Margherita Durastanti, who later created Giulio Cesare’s Sesto, among other roles. Bardon’s declamation is exemplary, and her sexy, imperious manners of walking are priceless.

Danielle de Niese (Poppea) is energetic and seductive onstage, vocally a soubrette with an uneven middle register. In concerted music, her runs are fleet but neither accurate nor well articulated. She colors the recits pointedly. Two stylistically aware countertenors enact Poppea’s younger suitors. As Ottone, a role created by a female contralto, Filippo Mineccia provides welcome native Italian and fine phrasing. His tone is always pleasant, and he’s moving in the great lament “Voi che udite.” Brighter-voiced but monochrome of timbre, Jake Arditti makes the juvenile Nerone clearly unfit for the throne. Finland’s Mika Kares, as Claudio, wields an imposing, really fine-sounding bass, but he isn’t as practiced a Handelian as his colleagues. Christoph Seidl, as the not-too-vital Lesbo, sounds Teutonic and throaty. 

Thomas Hengelbrock’s adept conducting—sometimes too fast—yields considerable pleasure, as does the playing and singing of his style-conscious Balthasar Neumann Ensemble. Gideon Davey’s handsome, neoclassical, Fascist-era sets and striking costumes are atmospherically lit by Carsen and Peter van Praet. —David Shengold

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