If you regret that HBO series “Rome” did not have a third season and if you happen to like baroque music, then Handel’s Agrippina is your opera. If someone deserved to have an opera for herself, a woman who was the great-granddaughter of both Augustus and Mark Anthony, sister to Caligula and mother of Nero should be it. Cardinal Vincenzo Grimiani’s libretto is a masterpiece, an intelligent political comedy with subtly risqué elements, that inspired Handel to write a smart sequence of concise and straight-to-the-point arias and fluent recitatives.
One can say that René Jacobs has been an advocate of this work – his Paris performances with Anna Catarina Antonacci, Malena Ernman and Miah Persson are still fresh in the memory of French opera-goers*. For the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Belgian conductor has decided to offer Berlin something at least of the same level of what he has showed in Paris.
Since Agrippina involves some chic, the wise decision of leaving the visual elements to the French has been made. Vincent Boussard’s production is all about chic – Vincent Lemaire’s minimalist silvery set divided by white-pearl beaded curtains is visually striking and Christian Lacroix’s costumes are everything you would expect from a famous couturier whose creations has often been called “baroque”. Since props are sparsely used, the extravagant and exquisite clothing successfully supply the necessary variety. I only object to dressing Nerone in tights and scarpins - having a mezzo soprano taking the role is already confusing enough for most opera-goers. I just wished that a less minimalist approach had been adopted, since the director felt that he had to make for the cleanliness by keeping his actors overbusy. All in all, the staging is so beautiful and creative that one is inclined to like it from moment one. Let’s have more of that instead of the imposture usually shown in the Lindenoper as “avant-garde”.
OK – if I had a boss, I would probably risk loosing the job… I did not have a pen and a moleskine with me and have to rely on my memory to talk about the edition adopted. First, one must praise Jacobs for refraining from making too many cuts in the score. I don’t recall having heard Agrippina’s Ho un non so che ne cor (although I like it, I admit it is not a great loss), Nerone’s Col ardore del tuo bel core (pity – Jennifer Rivera has sang it nimbly in the New York City Opera). I am less sure about Claudio’s Basta che sol tu chieda and Ottone’s Tacerò pur che fedele, not performed in the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. As in the Paris performances, Ottone and Poppea were wisely given back their reconciliation duet No, no, ch’io non apprezzo, inexplicably cut by Handel himself, since it is an exquisite stretch of music. That means that, when Jacobs’s recording of this production reaches the market, this will probably be a first recording on CD After the coro finale, an extract of the ballo (the bourrées?) was used for a final pantomime with Agrippina, Nerone and Claudio.
I have to confess I was not excited to hear Alexandrina Pendatchanska sing Handel. I owe her apologies, for her Agrippina is an admirable achievement. Not only one of the best in my experience, but certainly the best I have heard from her. Her voice was more homogenous than it uses to be and, when she decided to play with her registers, this has been precisely done to highlight the text. She also has the right tonal quality for the role – this is definitely not a part for sweet-toned girls and her metallic yet dark soprano suggests formidability. I do not need to report on her amazing flexibility – this is a known fact, used to great purpose here. She is also an excellent actress and her spontaneous Italian is remarkable for anyone whose mother language is something very different from that.
Although Agrippina is the prima donna role, the greater share of arias in the score goes for Poppea, which is a seconda donna role only on paper. Instead of looking for a guest star, Jacobs has cast from home values by choosing soprano Anna Prohaska. She is a singer I have often seen in Berlin and whose silvery soprano has always pleased me, but never before this evening could I experience the whole compass of her talents. Her Poppea was, how can I say it?, perfect. Although the voice is light and bright, the top register is always round and creamy, while her low notes are always focused and integrated into her middle register. Her coloratura is peerless, her mezza voce is lovely and, although her Italian could be 5% more natural, she makes good use of the text. She also happens to be a good actress and extremely pleasant to the eyes. She only has a strange habit of standing with one leg turned inwards.
Jennifer Rivera was the first Nerone I have ever seen in the New York City production, when I found her voice a bit more incisive and when she had more space to show her acting talents. In Boussard’s concept, Nerone seems to be a secondary role, reduced to languid sexiness. The whole episode in Poppea’s chambers had little place for that character in this production. Pity, for Rivera is a talented actress who is vocally and physically well cast in these androgynous roles. Her coloratura in Come nube was also very exciting. The amazing Bejun Mehta offered an intense performance as Ottone – his Voi che udite would make a stone shed tears. Marcos Fink’s resonant, noble-toned bass is proper to the role of Claudio and, in spite of the nobility of his voice, he relished the comedy approach and, together with the funny Daniel Schmutzhard (Lesbo), ensured the best laughs of the evening. Neil Davies was a capable Pallante and Dominique Visse’s eerie countertenor, for some reason, works for the role of Narciso.
René Jacobs invited the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin to produce warm sounds throughout and to color their tone to follow dramatic situations. Tempi tended to be fast, a bit too fast. Although Gardiner is less theatrical in his recording for Deutsche Grammophon, he lets the music breath and the result is finally more elegant and coherent. Jacobs has this habit of wanting to help the score – by adding parts not written by the composer or changing the original instrumentation or creating unwritten pauses. It might seem to him that he is bringing something to the experience, but my feeling is that this is only interfering with the composer’s own (and usually effective) ideas. In any case, do not mistake my words: this Agrippina is one of the great Handelian events of this year and you should grab the recording as soon as it is released.
* Although a telecast has been made, it remains a mystery why it has never been released.