I admit to having a problem with most Italian opera seria. I am probably more partial to the French school of tragedie lyrique, favoring the operas of Rameau, Lully, Charpentier to those of Vivaldi and Handel. I think this is due in large part to the predictability in form of opera seria, where da capo arias and recitatives strictly alternate with hardly any choruses or ensemble pieces interspersed. When recorded it can make for a rather monotonous experience, whereas the tragedie lyrique flows more freely and more humanly.
The present recording of Handel's first successful opera seria, however, is enchanting and lively. This is Handel's last opera for his stay in Italy and represents a tale of treachery in imperial Rome toward the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Agrippina, wife of emperor Claudius, uses her cunning to install her son Nero on the throne at all costs. This opera is cast in the form of opera seria generally, but diverges at times, leaving room for short ensembles and ariettes that do not stifle the drama. For Rene Jacobs this presents treasure trove of interpretive possibility. This recording is not flat, monotonous Italian opera seria. Rather, Jacobs utilizes the full range of dynamics of the period instruments of Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin to stunning results. It is a recording of serious opera that you don't find yourself skimming over the recitatives and da capo repetitions in arias. Jacobs keeps the drama flowing even during recitatives, allowing (historically correct) dramatic license for the continuo section as they not only accompany the singers, but comment on the action as well using improvised tone painting. In arias, there is no simple repetition in da capo arias, rather the singers display virtuosic and tasteful improvising when appropriate, as the famous singers of the baroque were documented as having done to thrilling results.
Alexandrina Pendatchanska is the prima donna. I first heard of her on another Jacob's recording in the role of Vitellia in Mozart's opera seria La Clemenza di Tito. This powerful singer has subsequently sung the roles of emotionally conflicted women (Donna Elvira) or conniving villainesses (Elettra and Vitellia). Agrippina fits in the latter category, and in this role Ms Pendatchanska is perfectly in her element.
Sunhae Im is Poppea, consort to the future emperors Nero and Otho. If Ms Pendatchanska is the prima donna, Ms Im is a close second. Having previously taken on lighter roles under Jacobs's baton (Papagena, Zerlina) she is dazzling in the present recording, displaying firework coloratura that I was not expecting from this singer who I had already thought was wonderful.
Marcos Fink plays the aged emperor Claudius. I had not previously heard a bass get more into the character more credibly. For example, the arioso "Vieni, o cara" in Act 1 in which he attempts to force himself of the much-younger Poppea, Mr Fink paints Claudius as the 'senex amans' in such a believable way that it is almost comic.
As for the rest of the cast, there is hardly a weak link. Mr Jacobs previously expressed his belief that attention should be paid to recitatives as well as arias, as they are the primary tool by which opera seria conveys plot. He has urged his singers to act using just the voice when recording, and his Agrippina is perhaps the best example of this practice when applied to Handel's operas. This is human sounding opera seria, hugely dramatic, and for a serious topic of murder and politics, it is, at last, a recording that coneys this topic with justice.
Displays of virtuosity abound by so many of the singers and obligatto members of the orchestra, it is difficult for me to pinpoint standout tracks. This is one recording of opera seria that I can recommend without hesitation.