Notes and Editorial Reviews
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“Truly exhilarating. Arnold Östman conducted the London Baroque Players and the cast of Michael Hampe's brilliantly musical production in one of the most infectious Schwetzingen productions of recent years.” – Opera
Picture Format:NTSC · 4:3 fullscreen Sound Format: PCM Stereo · Dolby Digital 5.1 · DTS 5.1 Region Code: 0
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French
Booklet Notes: English, German, French
Agrippina is brilliant, early Handel. Composed when he was just twenty-four, it was his first big
hit in the theatre. It’s full of his fresh, exuberantly inventive music and sets one of the finest librettos Handel worked with. This beautiful production, with an elegant and colorful staging, was recorded at the exquisite Rococo palace theatre in Schwetzingen, built in 1752.
Stage Director: Michael Hampe
R E V I E W S:
Even in the face of some formidable competition,
must surely be considered the jewel in the crown among Handel’s youthful Italian works. First given at the Teatro S Giovanni Cristostomo in Venice on December 26, 1709, it starts with the benefit of a brilliantly witty and sardonic libretto by Vincenzo Grimani. Handel set this story of intrigue and treachery in the Rome of Claudius, utilizing some of the best music he had already composed in Italy, as well as borrowing from Reinhard Keiser, his erstwhile Hamburg colleague.
The present DVD stems from performances given in the charming 18th-century theater at Schwetzingen during the course of the 1985 festival. It is certainly not a version for musical purists. The roles of Nerone (originally a soprano castrato), Ottone (written for a female contralto), and Narciso (alto castrato) were all transposed for male singers in, according to the notes, “the interests of verisimilitude.” For 1985, this is a curious notion that harks back to an earlier era; by that time, audiences were well used to women or male falsettists singing castrato roles. There are, too, substantial cuts to both
recitative and arias, many of which are shorn of their B sections and
repeats. When I tell you that Nicholas McGegan’s Harmonia Mundi CD set plays for nearly an hour longer, you will appreciate just how deep these cuts are. In addition, Ottone’s “Coronato il crin” (act II), and the act II arias for Pallante and Narciso are cut completely, as is Claudio’s arioso “Vorrei della bellezza,” while his “Basta, che sol” (act II) is moved forward in the action. Poppea is given a substitute aria in act II, “Se giunge un dispetto” replacing the original “Bella pur nel.”
Before moving on to the production, it also must be said that with the arguable exception of Barbara Daniels’s Agrippina, none of the singers would today pass muster as what we now consider a Handelian stylist. This is, of course, at least in part a tribute to the remarkable generation of Handel singers that has emerged during the course of the past 20 years, but it does make it difficult to now accept voices only capable of making the most approximate of attempts at Handel’s admittedly often demanding fioritura and divisions, not to mention the employment of continuous wide vibrato. All this is the more regrettable since Östman’s direction and the playing of the so-called London Baroque Players (there never was such a formally constituted band) is extremely stylish and well executed.
As the foregoing suggests, were we dealing with an audio recording, I would have little hesitation in dismissing this
out of hand. But it isn’t. It’s a DVD, and visually one that is an almost unmitigated source of delight in every respect. The basic set is extremely handsome, incorporating Classical columns and arches that transform effectively into Poppea’s boudoir and especially effectively into the garden scene in act II. The costumes are similarly striking, roughly Regency in period, with elegant dresses for both Agrippina and Poppea. Michael Hampe’s production has obviously taken its principal cue from
, a genre in which he excelled (look for a forthcoming DVD review of his irresistible Cimarosa
Il matrimonio segreto
). Given the 17th-century Venetian antecedents of the piece, rival suitors hidden in bedrooms, conversations overheard, witty asides, and so forth, it works to delightfully entertaining effect. Only the most sober-minded could fail to be amused by the clever guying of the
convention in Claudius’s outrageously pompous address to the Senate, “Cade il mondo.” But Hampe also has the musical intelligence to know when to leave well alone, and in both the big set-piece serious scenes, Agrippina’s magnificent “Pensieri” (act II) and the distraught Ottone’s “Voi che udite,” he leaves music and singer to make the point without the kind of interference indulged in by so many contemporary directors.
Having been less than impressed with much of the singing, it’s a pleasure to report that the acting and characterization is of an exceptionally high standard. The performance is dominated, as it should be, by Barbara Daniels’s unremittingly Machiavellian Agrippina. Comely of appearance, regal of movement, and viperishly seductive, her naked ambition for her son Nero is made the more potent by the undisguised incestuous lust she harbors for the foppish boy, a perverted sexual appetite complemented by only marginally less overt lesbian designs on Poppea. Poppea herself is delightfully taken by Janice Hall, an appealingly flirtatious sex kitten, but one with sufficient ken to learn quickly the ways of intrigue. Günter von Kannen matches an imposing stature with a splendidly rounded portrait of the puffed up Claudio, while special mention must also be made of Carlos Feller’s richly comic portrayal of his servant, Lesbo.
The filming is pleasingly unfussy, the sound of the orchestra excellent—that accorded the singers rather less flattering. As already made clear, if you want a musically complete and stylishly sung version of Handel’s early Venetian masterpiece, this is not it. If, on the other hand, the idea of a visually sumptuous, beautifully produced and acted entertainment appeals, I can guarantee over two hours of delight.
FANFARE: Brian Robins
Works on This Recording
Agrippina, HWV 6 by George Frideric Handel
David Kuebler (Tenor),
Janice Hall (Soprano),
Barbara Daniels (Soprano),
Günter von Kannen (Bass Baritone)
Written: 1709; Venice, Italy
Date of Recording: 5/2005
Length: 154 Minutes 0 Secs.
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