Il Caro Sassone!
Charles Richards | Los Angeles, CA | 01/08/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Agrippina" was Handel's first "hit" - an unmitigated success that ran for over 200 performances, quite impressive in a time in which opera was a "high turnover" commodity. Even though almost three centuries have passed since its premiere, it is still easy to see why: it has an entertaining and (for the time) fairly racy libretto, with beefy parts for both female principals; a historic framework with which most of the audience would be familiar; and last, but by no means least, a string of irresistable and inventive arias that clearly illustrates Handel's almost superhuman gift for melody. Here we see the young Saxon broadly flexing his muscles, and obviously enjoying every minute of it (a literary comparison could be the amazing poetic flights of fancy in some of Shakespeare's early mature comedies, such as "Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Twelfth Night").
The opera was never revived in Handel's lifetime (although he mined it for material for later operas and oratorios), and was all but forgotten until recently. It has been exceedingly fortunate in recent years, however, with two excellent CD recordings issued in the 90's (from McGegan on Harmonia Mundi and Gardiner on Philips).
And, believe it or not, this new DVD from Dynamic is actually the second production of this charming work available in video format; the other being a production from the 80's conducted by Ostmann.
And, of the two, this new version is by far the superior. Not only is it more complete (the Ostmann version cuts almost an hour of music), it features a much more idiomatic cast, the castrato parts are sung at correct pitch (the Ostmann performance has tenors and baritones cast in the castrato parts), and has a much more winning heroine(or, one may argue, anti-heroine).
Malgoire was a pioneer in the early days of period instruments, and his Handel recordings from the 70's and 80's still hold up today. This performance finds him still in fine form after all these years, with a clear understanding of Handel's score and 18th century performance practice in general. His tempi aren't "cutting edge", perhaps, but they're not stodgy by any means, and I feel few would find fault with anyone in the pit.
Veronique Gens is virtually ideal in the title role. Not only is her voice, lieing somewhere between lyric and mezzo, peculiarly perfect, but, physically, her youth and beauty prevent the character from degenerating into the realm of the "old battle-axe", and also make her role as a seductress that much more believable. Although not the ingenue role, it is Agrippina that really keeps the action (what there is of it) in motion, and Gens does not dissapoint in that respect.
Although the opera is named for Agrippina, Poppea may be considered more of a plumb role: she has the most well-known aria from the work ("Bel Piacere") and is the central figure of dispute among all the main characters (wanted by Nero, Ottone and Claudio, and used as a pawn by Agrippina), so this is a part which must be carefully cast as well. Ingrid Perruche handles this all in good grace, and with the right amount of coyness and perkiness. Vocally, she's virtually note-perfect, although the voice never truly soars (one could only imagine what Natalie Dessay could do with this part).
There's not enough room here to go into great detail about the supporting cast (which includes three, count 'em, three counter-tenors!) except to say that there seems to be no weak link in the chain. Jaroussky (Nero)falls prey, at times, to the male alto hoot, although his singing, throughout, is most admirable; Gregoire is amazing as Ottone, and moving, as well; Nigel Smith is an impressively masculine and sexy Claudio, although he sounds strained at times, and Fabrice di Falco (billed as a "male soprano") soars in the small part of Narcissus -- I hope we hear more from him.
The production is essentially static, which, to my mind, is not necessarily a bad thing. Too many directors try to compensate for the basically stop-and-go dramatic nature of 18th century opera by adding too much unnecessary stage business during the arias -- thankfully, that is not done here. A troupe of statuesque dancers grace the stage throughout, striking abstract poses on abstract stage properties -- the best that can be said of this is that it is only mildly distracting. Otherwise, the production, with its over-the-top and highly stylized 18th century costumes, is appealing to the eye.
Agrippina's libretto is fairly typical of Venetian opera of the period. The historic subject is treated with no reverence whatsoever (in fact if we were to give each of the characters different names we would probably not even recognize them) so don't expect another "I, Claudius" here. However, if taken for what it is, its farcical nature can be quite entertaining, especially, as is done here, when campiness is included but not over-indulged in.
All-in-all, three of the most pleasurable hours I've spent in quite some time. Video and audio reproduction are high, and the fact that the performance was filmed (rather than video-taped) gives it a rather glossy feel. The 180 minutes are spread out over two DVD's, which ups the price a bit. However, in this reviewer's opinion, it's worth every penny.
Handelian delights of flirtatiousness, plots and true devoti
Ingrid Heyn | Melbourne, Australia | 03/12/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What a delight this DVD is!
The instrumental playing and conducting are wonderful and appropriate, providing excellent support for the equally wonderful and appropriate cast. Each member not only sounds right, but all of them sound right, too.
Right? More than right. Veronique Gens is utterly admirable as the scheming Agrippina - she looks beautiful, and that lovely caramel-and-champagne voice of hers is wonderfully right for the role. Her not-quite-as-intelligent-yet-scheming son Nerone is beautifully portrayed by Philippe Jaroussky, and particularly as he warms up, he sings delightfully. I particularly enjoyed his final aria, a killer of an aria that requires precise and fast control.
As the pair of flattering courtiers interested in somehow gaining Agrippina and licking the boots of whoever is in power, Fabrice di Falco and Bernard Deletré are good indeed, and in their personas as well as their singing, they convey the right blend of seriousness and comedy required.
Ingrid Perruche is a charming Poppea - I do agree with the review below that the voice does not really soar, but after a reasonably good start, she gets even better. Shorter than the statuesque Ms Gens, Ms Perruche presents a vivacious and pretty Poppea.
Claudio himself is beautifully sung and played by Nigel Smith, whose attempted seductions of Poppea are deliciously hilarious to watch - do not miss his crawling across the floor as he hems in the reluctant Poppea whose major concern is whether Agrippina will arrive in time to thwart her husband's lovemaking. Wonderfully done!
The sympathetic role of Ottone is sung by Thierry Grégoire - and beautifully, too. He cuts a heroic figure (the only honest one in the whole bunch!) and he is willing to give up the throne of Rome for love of Poppea. (Never mind about the historical reality - this is Handel, not the true history - be prepared to have fun rather than take notes.) His singing has moments of very great beauty indeed, and he looks right for the part, too.
The faintest of drawbacks may be seen in the backdrops, which are inexplicable, but thankfully for the most part one doesn't even see them. The setting itself is simple, a minimum of blocks on the stage - and this detracts not one whit from the beautifully acted, beautifully sung opera.
All in all... so delightful that it's a keeper. I'll be watching this DVD again. More like this, please!"
May The Farce Be With You
Miz Ellen | Bovine Universe | 12/04/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As soon as she hears that her new husband Emperor Claudio is dead, Agrippina decides put her son Nero on the throne even though he has no claim. Her plans are disrupted by the return of the Emperor but that does not stop Agrippina's scheming, oh no...The opera libretto is set in classical Rome, but the writer Grimani is really satirizing the Rome and particularly the Pope of his own time. Handel took this racy tale and wrote spicy music that seems to underline the foibles of the characters.
This production brings together a juicy female title role with a splendid singer who is well up to the joint demands of singing Handel's wicked music and acting evil. Veronique Gens sings and schemes as AGRIPPINA and the results are wonderful. The splendid young countertenor, Phillippe Jaroussky plays her son, Nero. Nigel Smith is wonderfully comic as the easily manipulated Emperor of Rome, Claudio. Ingrid Perruche is totally believable as the beautiful Poppea. My one quibble with the casting is Thierry Gregoire as Ottone--he sang as if the ridiculous crotch-high boots that were part of his costume were affecting his voicebox.
The director seemed to be afraid that the viewer could not tell that this opera is intended to be a farce--all those scenes with all those men running in and out of Poppea's bedroom were not clue enough. Every character is given a costume that tends to the exaggerated if not the grotesque. Ottone is supposed to be the romantic hero: hence the thigh-high boots. Nero's costume is half-clown, half little-boy-sailor suit. Poppea is dressed in frothy layers of spring green and pink, while Claudio stumbles around in his nightgown--which looks almost dignified next to the others! Aprippina wears devil-red with wide panniers...it all works, but I'm not sure if it is "because of" or "in spite of". This opera is like one of those little cakes with the colorful frosting outside and layers of cream, jam and cake inside: yummy but not to be taken too seriously."
Diva Agrippina's starry night.
Anna Shlimovich | Boston, MA United States | 05/27/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This Agrippina is a marvelous production; not only everyone sings beautifully, they are also young, shapely and good-looking. The costumes are wonderfully stylish, the wigs are funny and pompous, as befits a comedy; there is excellent acting and overall it is a pleasure to listen and watch.
I have never seen Veronique Gens and Philippe Jaroussky before, although I was aware of their fame. From this DVD one can hear and see that they are outstanding. Veronique Gens is a true virtuoso and it is difficult to imagine that Margherita Durastanti, the first Agrippina of the Premier night of 26 December 1709, would sing better. This Agrippina's looks are arresting - she resembles Callas somewhat.
Regarding Nerone (Philippe Jaroussky), it is quite rare for a countertenor to sing with such agility and ease; he sings effortlessly. The role of Nero is soprano, it was premiered by soprano castrato Valeriano Pellegrini, and Philippe Jaroussky was flawless as well, although it is rumored that a voice of a countertenor can never achieve what a castrato voice could - for better or worse, that remains an enigma of today. Visually, it helps to find this Nerone so cute, and his appearance excites ideas about the true Nero the Emperor, who was a poet and an actor.
Poppea (Ingrid Perruche) and Ottone (Thierry Gregoire) are also phenomenal. Ottone rendered his main aria "Otton, Otton...Voi che udite il mio lamento" with great skill and refined expressiveness.
It should be noted that both countertenors (Nerone and Ottone) are so fantastic in this French production, considering that French did not esteem castrato voice historically; yet these are some of the ever best countertenors I have ever heard.
This Handel's opera is especially interesting, since it deals with the same subject as Monteverdi's "Il Coronazione di Poppea";however, in Monteverdi's opera Agrippina does not appear. To me, Handel's opus is even more comical, and according to the history of this opera, the librettist, a Venetian aristocrat Vincenzo Grimani, made it ludicrous on purpose - he had a cordial dislike for pope Clement XI (Giovanni Francesco Albani) and satirized him in Claudio aria in act III "Io di Roma il Giove sono", but even further, the whole spirit of this opus is somewhat satirical.
It should be noted that Venice historically viewed Papacy with suspicion, and especially such powerful families as Grimani - although they were not part of the Twelve Apostolic families of Venice, they were included as nobility in 1297, and the current Museo Archeologico in Procuratore Nuove/Museo Correr was started in 1523 by Cardinal Domenico Grimani. When in Venice, a Handelian should not overlook the enormous Palazzo Grimani on the Grand Canal, not far from Rialto, and of course, Teatro Malibran, former Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, the Grimani family-owned theater for aristocrats where the Premier of "Agrippina" took place.
According to some sources, in composing Agrippina Handel borrowed extensively from his earlier oratorios and cantatas, and from other composers including Reinhard Keiser, Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Baptiste Lully. This adapting and borrowing was common practice at the time, but its extent in Agrippina is greater than in almost all the composer's other major dramatic works.
Examples of recycled material include Pallas's "Col raggio placido", which is based on Lucifer's aria from La resurrezione (1708), "O voi dell' Erebo", which was itself adapted from Reinhard Keiser's 1705 opera Octavia. Agrippina's aria "Non hò cor che per amarti" was taken, almost entirely unadapted, from "Se la morte non vorrà" in Handel's earlier dramatic cantata Qual ti reveggio, oh Dio (1707); her aria "Ogni vento" is an unchanged "Fiamma bella" from his own cantata "Aminta e Fillide", the melody itself borrowed from his teacher Reinhard Keiser; Narcissus's "Spererò" is an adaptation of "Sai perchè" from another 1707 cantata, Clori, Tirsi e Fileno; and parts of Nero's Act 3 aria "Come nube che fugge dal vento" are borrowed Handel's oratorio Il trionfo del tempo (all from 1707). Later, some of Agrippina's music was used by Handel in his London operas Rinaldo (1711) and the 1732 version of Acis and Galatea, in each case with little or no change.The first music by Handel heard in London may have been Agrippina's "Non hò che", transposed into Alessandro Scarlatti's opera Pirro è Dimitrio which was performed in London on 6 December 1710. The Agrippina overture and other arias from the opera appeared in pasticcios performed in London between 1710 and 1714, with additional music provided by other composers.Echoes of "Ti vo' giusta" (one of the few arias composed specifically for Agrippina) can be found in the air "He was despised", from Handel's Messiah (1742).
Therefore, this opera is of enormous importance and is highly recommended for Handelians; plus this production is excellent, and justly received bravura applause at the end.
My only critique of this staging is that subtitles are displayed prominently - In Act II and III under the bench in the center of the stage, and thereafter on the wall in the bright pink color, this must be truly horrendous for the listeners and break all the magic of music. It starts with Poppea aria in Act II "Bella pur nel mio diletto", and it must have been incredibly frustrating watching that in house, since I am sure it was distracting, and in my opinion, disrespectful of singers. In this case, it was a rare privilege to see a DVD instead of live performance, due to producers sparing this crudity by moving the camera away from the atrocity. It made me think with gratitude of the otherwise controversial Metropolitan Opera House where the subtitles are mounted with utmost discretion into the back of the preceeding chair, and one can switch them off if not needed.
Because of this intrusion, I give this performance 4 stars, although for the pure singing it deserves all 5 and the starry night.
And finally, I would recommend a sequel to this Agrippina the Ponnelle/Harnoncourt performance of Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" - a historically acclaimed production, made almost 30 years ago but remaining forever young.