HANDEL: Agrippina (complete opera) – Alexandrina Pendatchanska, soprano (Agrippina) / Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano (Nerone)/ Sunhae Im, soprano (Poppea)/ Bejun Mehta, counter-tenor (Ottone)/ Marcos Fink, bass-baritone (Claudio)/ Neal Davies, bass-baritone (Pallante)/ Dominique Visse (Narciso)/ Daniel Schmutzhard, bass (Lesbo)/ Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/ René Jacobs – Harmonia mundi HMC 902088.90, (3 CDs), TT: 3 hr., 23 min. *****:
Love, intrigue, and laughs in ancient Rome. This is not the picture of Agrippina, Claudius, Nero, and Otho that you’ll get on the History Channel. Instead, this is one of those seriocomic takes on history that early Baroque audiences ate up and with which Handel accommodated his hearers early in his career.
The libretto was written by one Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, a part-time literary figure who supplied libretti for a number of composers besides Handel, though his work with Handel is the most famous. Grimani’s libretti were of the hybrid variety mentioned earlier; unlike the more single-minded opera seria that became the standard after 1710, Grimani’s libretti included heavily satirical and comical elements. Later adherents of opera seria would also contend that they lacked a clear moral center. In Agrippina, for example, only Ottone (Otho) is more or less free of the moral failings that taint the other characters. On the other hand, the seriocomic bent of Grimani approach means that we’re spared the bloodletting the Roman emperors regularly indulged in. Agrippina may be a master manipulator, devious to the nth degree, but Grimani doesn’t touch on her murderous future or that of her son Nerone (Nero).
A good example of Grimani’s subtle moral commentary is his quiet jabs at Nerone, who’s portrayed as power hungry to the exclusion of just about any other interest. Supposing that her husband Claudio has been shipwrecked and drowned while sailing from Britain, Agrippina advises Nero to win the throne by going into the capital and spreading largesse among the citizens. At the same time, she’s ordered her servants Pallante and Narciso, both hopelessly in love with her, to talk up Nero’s fine attributes to the crowd and otherwise agitate for his accession to the throne. Nero turns to the two servants and laments that he’d be freer with his gifts to the people except “angusto fato / sia termine a mie brame” (“narrow fortune / sets limits to my charity”). What a laugh! Then, in an aside, he says that he will follow his mother’s sound advice: “se finger saprò, Cesare sono” (“if I learn to deceive, I shall be Caesar”).
Grimani constantly provides insight into his characters’ true feelings and motivations through these asides. A character may be singing the loftiest of platitudes but then will undercut that seeming rectitude with a revealing aside. This feature of Grimani’s work makes it one of the subtlest and most literary that Handel ever set to music.
For opera lovers, the love triangle of Poppea, Nerone, and Ottone is familiar from Monteverdi’s darker treatment of a later chapter of their story in La Coronazione di Poppea. In Grimani’s treatment, Nerone is a suitor to Poppea, but since his chief goal is to be emperor, he gladly gives up any claims on her. Ottone, who has saved Claudio from the aforementioned shipwreck, has been promised a claim to the throne, but so true is his love for Poppea that he equally happily relinquishes the claim for her. The chief impediment is Agrippina, who’s so bent on seeing that her son become emperor that she accuses the innocent Ottone of treachery, of pretending to love Poppea as a blind for making a grab at the throne. Knowing that her husband the emperor is secretly in love with Poppea, Agrippina advises her to tell Claudio that Ottone forbids her to return Claudio’s love and further, that Ottone wants to have both the throne and Poppea to himself.
The semi-comic denouement finds Agrippina lying again to get what she wants. She tells Claudio that she and Nerone actually saved the throne from rival claimants when it was supposed that Claudio had drowned. Besides that, Ottone is Poppea’s true lover, not Nerone, no matter how damning the evidence may be. Claudio has already proved, in his foolish infatuation for Poppea, that there’s no fool like an old imperial fool, and he’s befuddled as well as embarrassed by the whole turn of events. To make everyone happy, he proposes to share the throne with Ottone and give Poppea’s hand to Nerone. Nerone points out that Claudio has things backward: “Ubbideiente io son alle tue voglie, / ma doppio mio castigo / e il togliermi l’impero e darmi moglie.” (“I’m always obedient to your wishes / but it’s a double punishment / to take away the empire and also make me marry.”) This delicious little speech is deeply revealing of Nerone’s character; conductor René Jacobs thinks it might even subtly reveal Nerone’s bisexuality. At any rate, Claudio does straighten things out—oh, right, the throne for you Nerone, and Ottone, you get Poppea—and the opera ends with a happy concluding chorus and gigue.
If Cardinal Grimani gave Handel one his finest scripts to work with, Handel returned the favor, producing his first genuine operatic masterpiece. However, according to the best authorities, the opera was written rapidly before its premiere in Venice during carnival season 1710. While Handel may have started work on the opera before he left Rome, Jacobs explains that Handel was able to make such fast work of the project thanks to the Baroque practice of parody. Bach employed the same technique in his sacred cantatas, repurposing the music written for earlier entertainments, oftentimes turning an aria from a secular cantata into a sacred aria by substituting new text for old. In Handel’s case, the composer had a raft of material to work from: the numerous cantatas, oratorios, and instrumental numbers he had written since traveling to Italy. As he did shamelessly in other works (and he was certainly not alone in this practice), Handel even turned to the work of other composers, including his former Hamburg colleague Reinhard Keiser.
It’s easy enough to trace the sources of Handel’s borrowings. In his notes, René Jacobs makes a fascinating case for the fact that the composer’s self-borrowings provide a subtext to the arias that’s akin to Cardinal Grimani’s subtle character painting through the asides and other speeches of the characters. For example: “Fascinating is the use of parody in Claudio’s last aria, no. 41 (‘lo di Roma il Giove sono’). ‘I am Caesar, God and Emperor,’ he sings, ‘on my throne is no other ruler.’ However, the reality is quite different, as the orchestra shows in a continuous staccato accompaniment on the strings. The significance of this edgy figuration is explained by the model, an aria from Handel’s first opera Almira (Hamburg 1704), which speaks of ‘steps’ that inevitably lead ‘to ruin’ (‘passi alle ruine’). The staccato notes seem to have the same meaning here too: they are footsteps of the blind, plunged into the abyss by a blind guide (Cupid).”
Jacobs’ conjectures about subtexts are fascinating, and there may be truth in them. However, given the haste with which the project unfolded, perhaps Handel didn’t have time for such clever repurposing of older material. I’m not enough of a Handel scholar to say for sure. But sometimes I feel that Jacobs’ conclusions might be suspect. For example, he says that Agrippina’s first aria (No. 4) expresses her Machiavellian sense of purpose while keeping close to its source, a similarly swaggering motto which launches the triumphal closing chorus of La Resurrezione. The subversive message behind the parody might be stated thus: with the same fanaticism the Catholic Church expresses its will to power.” That sounds pretty farfetched to me. And actually, the melody that Handel uses here is taken from the sinfonia to his secular cantata Ah! crudel nel pianto mio, HWV 78, right down to the solo role for the oboe. So my advice is to read Jacobs’ commentary with interest and at least a middling grain of salt.
That’s not how I feel about the performance of the opera, though. Jacobs is known for his emphatic style in conducting old music; some feel he has a tendency to overdo things, and that may be true in a very few cases. But mostly I feel that his performances are revelatory, getting to the heart of the drama, enlivening the music, shaping the accompaniment to the sung music in such a way that it is more than accompaniment: a running commentary on the text. Jacobs’ Giulio Cesare is a classic interpretation, and I think this Agrippina is cut from the same cloth. Jacobs is the perfect guide to Handel’s by-turns gorgeous and exciting music. He and his very fine cast help us see why Handel operas are making such a remarkable comeback after their centuries of neglect. One matter that will rile some listeners, however, is that Jacobs has decided to go back to Handel’s first original thoughts on the opera. Jacobs defends his choices eloquently, but there are those who won’t buy into them. I’m willing to accept this powerful Agrippina on its own terms.
Among the cast, Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska makes Agrippina into the iron lady Grimani and Handel envisioned her as. There’s an edge and bite to her singing that get at the meat of this character. On the other hand, Sunhae Im is careful to position Poppea as devious, yes, but as a woman who must use her wiles to protect her interests in the cutthroat atmosphere of ancient Rome. It’s a good piece of acting, and the voice is lovely. Jennifer Rivera’s Nerone is a good foil to Poppea; in Nerone’s first aria, in which he says he will accept his mother’s counsel to conceal his arrogance and appear generous to the people, Rivera sings with a shake in her voice and an air of submissiveness that establishes Nerone as his mother’s creature. In subsequent arias, Rivera captures Nerone’s adopted unctuousness tellingly. In fact, maybe the temperature of her performance is just a bit low, especially in the company of Pendatchanska’s fiery Agrippina.
As the other leg of the triangle, Bejun Mehta is perfect as Ottone, his clean resonant countertenor portraying the essential goodness of his character and perfectly shading it with the sorrow that overwhelms him when his motives fall under suspicion. As to Claudio, there’s such beauty and authority in Marcos Fink’s singing (his low notes are truly commanding) that the emperor initially seems to emerge as a stronger figure than Grimani must have imagined him. However, in the later scenes with Poppea, Nerone, and Ottone, he emerges as the infatuated and befuddled old fool that he is, no better example being Aria No. 41, which Jacobs points to in his notes.
The playing as usual from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is wonderfully colorful and alive, all the more remarkable here since Handel’s orchestra is modest compared to that in his later operas. I find the continuo work and the solos by flute, recorder, and oboe especially worthy of praise. Harmonia mundi’s studio recording is a little close-in but is very vibrant and detailed, featuring a realistic balance between singers and orchestra. In short, this is an Agrippina that will thrill on all counts
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre