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Customer Review

on 16 October 2011
Agrippina and René Jacobs go back a long time. I remember a stage production in the Brussels Monnae opera in May 2000, directed by Robert Carsen with Jacobs in the pit. The opera was a revelation with a dream cast: Anna Catharina Antonacci was Agrippina, Rosemary Joshua sang Poppea and Lawrence Zazzo was a youthful Ottone. Very soon after this production, rumours were spread that Jacobs would record Agrippina. It took him 10 years to finally realize this recording and the only one to survive from the 2000 cast is Domique Visse in the small role of Narciso.
In these 10 years, the recording I grew accustomed to was Gardiner's, a model of professionalism with a cast of Baroque specialists. Alas, Jacobs' cast is almost uniformely inferior to Gardiner's. Moreover, Jacobs' extremely dramatic direction often asks for overacting from the singers, which is simply not necessary with a libretto that speaks for itself.
The opera is dominated by Agrippina, sung by Della Jones in the Gardiner recording. She is very cunning and funny in the recitatives, and although her voice is not the most pleasant, she won me over in a completely compelling interpretation.
What to think of Jacobs' Pendatchanska? She is surely a gifted singer, with shrill high notes, but quite some exciting moments. To name one: Jacobs reorchestrated her Act 1 aria 'Tu ben digno' to great effect, Gardiner sounds dull there in comparison.
But, in the recitatives, she does not convince me she is Agrippina. It must be the overacting that spoils it for me and the shrillness of the voice makes listening to her tiresome. A missed opportunity, since Antonacci would have been perfect...
Jacobs cannot image Nerone to be sung by a countertenor, so he choose the mezzo Jennifer Rivera for that role. Nonetheless, the countertenor Derek Lee Ragin copes much better with the high lying tessitura of Nerone, Rivera struggles with the notes and is simply miscast. Another idea of Jacobs is that Claudio should be sung by a bass-baritone and not by a deep bass. The low D in his aria 'Cada il mondo' can hardly be sung by a bass-baritone, and that expresses the ridicule nature of the emperor. That may be true from a dramatical point of view, but on record I like to hear the low notes as written by the composer. Gardiner's Alastair Miles has all the notes and more than that: his interpretation can and will never be bettered. The same goes for Micheal Chance's Ottone, innocence impersonated. Again Jacobs chooses a singer, Bejun Mehta, whose voice is an acquired taste. To me, just another miscast.
I love both Poppeas equally, a great portrait of the vanity of women. Her entrance aria 'Vaghe perle' is in my opinion one of the best Handel composed.
The other roles are much smaller, although I must point out that Dominique Visse is much better than the bland countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny in the Gardiner recording.
You certainly do not have to buy Jacobs for the better singing, but maybe there is another reason of interest: Jacobs uses another edition of the opera. There are numerous differences in the score, especially in the second half of the opera. Here, I can follow Jacobs' alterations. We get a lot of new arias, which should better reflect the intentions of the composer.
Ultimately, this recording is for Agrippina completists. If you want just one, Gardiner is still the one to have.
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