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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Agrippina – Ulrike Schneider (mezzo)
Claudio – Joăo Fernandes (bass)
Ottone – Christopher Ainslie (counter-tenor)
Nerone – Jake Arditti (counter-tenor)
Poppea – Ida Falk Winland (soprano)
Narcisco – Owen Willetts (counter-tenor)
Pallante – Ross Ramgobin (baritone)
Lesbo – Ronaldo Steiner (baritone)
FestspielOrchester Göttingen/Laurence Cummings
rec. live, Göttingen International Handel Festival, 15, 18 May 2015
ACCENT ACC26404 [3 CDs: 62:26 + 78:28 + 75:51]

Agrippina was the last opera that Handel wrote and produced for his time in Italy. It's a very adventurous piece, not without its dashes of humour - something almost unheard of in a Handel opera - and even a few ensembles, albeit very short-lived ones. It revolves around Agrippina's machinations to get her son Nero onto the throne of the Roman Empire. While doing so she spins along at least three lovers, and does her best to play upon the amorous inclinations of several others. Handel, and Cummings, treats his material with refreshing humanity and refuses to get caught up in the somewhat stifling seriousness that many of his other opere serie demand, and the arias fizz with energy throughout.

As with most of these other Göttingen releases, the direction of Laurence Cummings is one of the set’s key selling-points. There is a lovely bounce to Cummings' shaping of the music, and a spicy flavour to the orchestral sound, especially the way the violins blend with the oboes. They seem inadvertently to argue a case that the Sinfonia is Handel's greatest overture — I was convinced — and play with total persuasiveness throughout, with thrilling trumpets in the martial scenes as a bonus.

The singing is a more mixed affair, but there is a lot more good than bad. Ulrike Schneider is marvellous in the title role. Her recitatives are full of little touches they betray the Empress's characteristics, especially her sly cunning. She keeps her various deceits going with wonderful abandon - her first act arias are a special treat in this regard - but then becomes strangely plaintive during her great second act aria Pensieri, voi mi tormentate. Jake Arditti is the pick of the counter-tenors, a real star in the making. He is ethereal and rather alluring in his first aria, entirely the insidious persuader that Nero is trying to be. He commands the latter reaches of Act 2, and is thrilling in his Act 3 showpiece Come nube. Next to him, Christopher Ainslie brings a slightly nasal counter-tenor to Ottone, but this contrasts him well with the others. His aria at the beginning of act 2 shows impressive coloratura, and Voi che udite, his aria of lament, draws justified applause. Ross Ramgobin, a baritone, is slightly anonymous in his first aria, and doesn't really inspire much later, either. Owen Willetts, his rival for Agrippina's hand, is much more convincing and has a beautifully mellifluous counter-tenor. Joăo Fernandes is too gravelly as Claudio, however. His first aria of love for Poppea holds little allure; nor is he secure enough at the bottom of his register. The arguable star of the set, however, is Ida Fank Winland, who brings beautiful sweetness to the part of Poppea. As the only true soprano on the billing, I found her voice a welcome breath of freshness every time she appeared. Her arias run a dazzling range of emotions in the first act alone, including one that didn't make it into the Venetian premiere, and she lightens the texture of the opera beautifully.

The live-ness of the recording is very obvious, with its stage noises, applause and movement of the voices, and it won't be to everyone's taste. Such people need only turn to Gardiner's Philips recording for the best studio version of Handel's last opera for Italy. However, this one does have in its favour that it is the first recording of a new critical edition, so even Agrippina purists will have a reason to check it out. The packaging, by the way, is full of generous full-colour pictures of the Göttingen production, which looks like it was worth catching. The booklet contains full texts and translations.

Simon Thompson



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