- HWV 6 -

Philips 438 009-2
3 CDs
full price
(Recorded in 1991-92)

Agrippina: Della Jones
Alastair Miles
Derek Lee Ragin
Donna Brown
Michael Chance
George Mosley
Jonathan Peter Kenny
Lesbo: Julian Clarkson
Anne Sofie von Otter

English Baroque Soloists (on period instruments)
Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner


This is a first-rate performance of Handel's second Italian opera, concerning the Roman empress Agrippina's attempts to secure the throne for her son Nero early in the first century AD. With Gardiner at the helm, this recording has a slightly bigger vocal and orchestral sound than comparable Handel sets from, for example, Robert King or Jean-Claude Malgoire, captured in a friendly but not overly resonant acoustic. There is no choir; the few choral numbers, where they occur, are sung by the soloists.

Della Jones turns in a characterful performance as the emperor's wife--who was also his niece--alternately charming, conniving with, and denouncing those she has drawn into her plan, which include all the principals. There is occasionally a slight dryness in her tone, but otherwise she is very impressive, handling the coloratura like a true veteran and acting the part wonderfully, as in her big Act II aria and recitative "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate!" As her husband Claudius, bass Alastair Miles is appropriately bumbling, his cavernous basso profondo adding a comic note to his technically secure interpretation. The casting of Derek Lee Ragin, a countertenor with a surprising upper extension and great agility, in the soprano castrato part of the adolescent Nero is a bold move yielding mixed results. As the tessitura is very high for a falsetto male, Ragin sounds strained in a few places, but his rendition is otherwise solid and he conveys the spoiled-brat character effectively.

The lovers Poppea and Ottone are the most fully-fleshed characters dramatically, sung with great style by Donna Brown and Michael Chance. The latter's Act II accompanied recitative and aria "Otton!... Voi che udite il mio lamento", occurring after he has been rejected in turn by Agrippina, Poppea, and Nerone (via a quick "exit aria" from each), is the most affecting episode in the opera, and shows how great Handel's gifts for writing dramatic vocal music were, even at this early stage in his operatic career. Poppea's challenging music includes some incredibly long and florid melismas, as in her final Act I aria "Se giunge un dispetto", all expertly handled by Brown whose stunning technique never gets in the way of her characterization.

The secondary roles of the imperial servant Lesbo and the henchmen Pallante and Narciso (the last two compared to Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the program notes) are handled stylishly and characterfully; it's a pity Anne Sofie von Otter's cameo as the *dea ex machina* Juno isn't on the same level—she sings her one aria with an almost audible lack of enthusiasm, and it is left up to Gardiner to provide the final high note with an energetic reading of the *ballo* that closes the work.

© Mathieu Marcil - 1997

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