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Handel wrote Agrippina in rather a rush. He had been building his career in Italy for three years, and on his way north to cooler climes he stayed in Venice in 1709, where apparently he was recognised while playing the harpsichord at a masked ball and was begged to write an opera. (Happens to me all the time… just so annoying.) Eventually he acquiesced, accepted an off-the-peg libretto, and by cannibalising previous compositions to make up about three quarters of the new opera, he produced Agrippina in three weeks. None of which sounds particularly promising – a reluctant young composer uses a readymade text and rehashes some old numbers, presumably throwing a few all-nighters, in a huge rush. Plus, the edition used for this new recording scoops up everything that Handel composed for the opera and consequently approaches the four hour mark, so it is not for the fainthearted.

The good news is that it is actually wonderful and this recording is hugely convincing. For a start, the recitatives crackle along at a pace – and in Handel you are sunk if they don’t, not least because of sheer quantity. But they really do carry the plot and everyone throws themselves into it with immense gusto. Ah yes, the plot. It is based on Tacitus and Suetonius, and concerns Emperor Claudio’s wife, Agrippina, who schemes for her son Nerone to become the next Emperor. She hears that Claudio has died at sea and hey presto, fabulous news, wish granted. But at the vital moment that Nerone ascends the throne it all turns out to be a false alarm – fake news! – and what could have been a short cantata turns into a long and complicated three-act opera throughout which Agrippina plots and schemes until nobody can trust anybody else, passions flare and subside, and lust and politics become hideously intertwined, until Claudio returns and manages to sort everything out to generally mutual satisfaction.

Maxim Emelyanychev conducts Il Pomo d’Oro with precision and flow, and they sound surprisingly rich-toned, so don’t fear any scratchy strings. Joyce DiDonato takes the title role, and if you are going to judge a CD by its cover, this is a good one to choose. Her arrogantly relaxed posture and cocky smirk into the lens sums it all up: don’t mess with me. This is one of her best recorded performances, not just because she sings it wonderfully (as we have generally come to expect), but because it allows her to convey so many emotions, from rage to laughter, from hauteur to a rare moment of introspection. Elsa Benoit’s Poppea, who isn’t as innocent as she looks, reveals a fresh soprano, beautiful of tone and buoyant of line. Franco Fagioli’s Nerone offers less tonal attractiveness – at times he is really squally – but it is a vivid and bravura portrayal. Rising star Jakub Józef Orliński’s countertenor is smooth and sensuous as Ottone: he must remember not to become lost in the reverie of his own sound and to perhaps engage a touch more. Luca Pisaroni has no such problems as Claudio, and though his bass-baritone is not the most profound or beautiful, he has personality and technique.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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