DiDonato Excels As Titular Heroine On ‘Agrippina’ CD

Joyce DiDonato in the Metropolitan Opera production of Handel’s ‘Agrippina.’ (Photo by Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera)

DIGITAL REVIEW — To coincide with the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever staging of Handel’s early comic masterpiece Agrippina on Feb. 6 (reviewed on CVNA Feb. 8), Erato issued a splendid new recording of the entire piece — with appendices — starring the same terrific leading lady, Joyce DiDonato.

The Kansas-born mezzo-soprano — a masterful Handelian prima donna to her fingertips, as previous appearances as Dejanira (Hercules), Ariodante, and Alcina have shown — had earlier toured the work with the highly gifted and imaginative Russian baroque conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and much of the cast of this recording. Handel crafted the rewarding marathon title role for Margherita Durastanti, a longtime associate of the composer who took both soprano and high mezzo roles in his operas and oratorios. DiDonato’s assurance, subtlety, and variety in shaping recitatives limns the Empress’ mercurial character and underpins the work’s dramatic arc. Her technically superb vocalism shines equally brightly in cantilena, with a huge palette of tone colors, dazzling coloratura fluency, and decorative taste and daring, plus a seemingly endless supply of breath. Her fully motivated bravura portrayal testifies to deep musical engagement not only with this score but with this conductor, who also helmed her Erato tour/CD/DVD project In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music.

While Harry Bicket at the Met drew fine results from the company’s mainstream orchestra, Emelyanychev has the distinct advantage of working with his own stylistically attuned, historically informed band, Il Pomo d’Oro. Rhythmically alert — witness the snap of Act Two’s short prelude before Ottone and Poppea reunite prior to the former’s sudden demotion by the Emperor he has rescued — they supply committed and sonorous continuo and obbligato support to the opera’s widely differing numbers. At this stage, Handel was not yet practicing his later formula of da capo “exit arias;” part of Agrippina‘s appeal lies in its comparative formal variety. Writing for the Venetian public, Handel seemed in places to look backwards to the shorter aria and ensemble structures — plus the sudden changes in dramatic tone — of Cavalli. Some of the continuo playing and vocal decoration sounds almost improvisatory, but rarely in the heavy-handed “wink/nudge” way that (for me, at least) has marred René Jacobs’ recent projects. Emelyanychev himself plays the harpsichord and organ. His springy touch on the former instrument enlivens such numbers as Ottone’s second act “Ti vuò giusta e non pietosa.” Roberto de Francheschi’s plaintive oboe eloquently supports DiDonato’s complex, precise treatment of Agrippina’s soberly reflective “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate.”

As Agrippina’s son Nerone, Franco Fagioli gets the initial aria, “Col saggio tuo consiglio,” exhibiting his personal and very peculiar timbre, its bottled-up resonance slightly obscuring his words but arguably suggestive of the paranoid Emperor-to-be’s incipient madness. Unlike Kate Lindsey at the Met, however, the Argentine countertenor — though as ever proving fond of startling interpolations and decoration — does not push the vocal coloration into caricature. Indeed, his voice can sound quite beautiful when he wants it to be, for example in “Qual piacer, a un cor pietoso,” Nerone’s (insincere) protestation of his love for the Roman poor.

Poppea — the collective object of so much lustful sentiment in Claudio’s court — is French soprano Elsa Benoit, who sings a wide repertory and has portrayed this role onstage at the Bavarian State Opera (with Fagioli). A new voice and name to me, Benoit acquits herself well. Her characterful instrument has a light lyric weight yet can take on soubrette sparkle; she engages expressively with the text at moments of stress and humor alike. Emelyanychev’s 2019 tour performances featured barn-burning countertenor Xavier Sabata as Ottone (and in the dea ex machina role of Giunone!) and the excellent Gianluca Buratto as Claudio. For the recording, Erato went with bigger names: the Juilliard-trained Polish internet sensation Jakub Józef Orliński for Ottone and established bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Claudio, with Giunone’s single recit/aria scena as a cameo for gutsy Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux.

The ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro plays resplendently under chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. (Nicola Dalmaso)

Orliński, as in his recent CDs Anima sacra and Facce d’amore, displays fine musicianship and an instrument both silky and sonorous, if comparatively weak at the bottom. Yet throughout his performance the timbre remains rather monochromatic, and while words are clearly uttered they rarely sound fully inhabited. In this respect, Orliński’s Ottone recalls Iestyn Davies’ Met venture in the role (Agrippina‘s only sympathetic character). Both artists are very accomplished, stylish vocalists but not – or in the young Orliński’s case at least not yet – in command of the interpretive skills and subtleties of tone color which could make Ottone’s despairing “Voi che udite il mio lamento” properly heart-rending. I’ve seen such magic worked in the theater by Christophe Dumaux (Santa Fe, 2004) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Boston Lyric, 2011). Without it, Agrippina and Poppea’s strong characters and struggle of wits completely dominate the opera. Still, Orliński’s contribution makes for fluent, attractive listening throughout.

American audiences know Pisaroni’s genuinely responsive artistry, but here it’s possible to wish that Buratto’s services had been retained as Claudio for the recording. The sustained lines of the Emperor’s fond arioso “Vieni, o cara” reveal that Pisaroni’s vibrato has slightly loosened and his timbre grayed a bit in the last few years. He no longer commands the firmness and skill he showed as Caliban in the 2011 Met baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island or as Argante in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2012 Rinaldo. The more rapid numbers, like Claudio’s swaggering “Cade il mondo soggiogato,” suit Pisaroni better here. Lemieux, an experienced Handelian, brings a bit too much edge to Giunone’s one aria.

Joyce DiDonato (Paola Kudacki / Metropolitan Opera)

The plot features two fawning courtiers, Narciso (written for alto castrato) and Pallante (bass) in secondary but important roles; each has two solo arias, and they figure in ensembles. The highly serviceable Milanese bass Andrea Mastroni sings Pallante, offering the requisite range and flexibility, native Italian, and informed style, though an unspecial timbre. The fine countertenor Carlo Vistoli, who has trained with William Christie and toured with John Eliot Gardiner and Diego Fasolis, takes Narciso’s part with gratifying tonal polish, interpretive savvy, and technical ease; he’s a rising artist to watch. Bass Biagio Pizzuti, as Claudio’s go-between Lesbo, seizes his 30-second entrance arioso “Allegrezza, allegrezza!” as an opportunity to shine, and delivers recits with crisp point. In his interactions with Poppea, Pizzuti’s servant sounds every bit as enamored of her as the opera’s other men: an uncommonly interesting take on a musically undersketched minor character.

This particular Handel opera has received several recordings, with audio offerings by Jacobs, Gardiner, Nicholas McGegan, Jean-Claude Malgoire, and Laurence Cummings. All of these sets harbor worthy casting elements alongside some less rewarding portrayals. Malgoire’s version, also filmed, surpasses other DVD versions under Thomas Hengelbrock and Jan Willem de Vriend. To date, Emelyanychev’s well-engineered new issue offers the strongest cast and best playing.  The edition here, by Peter Jones and David Vickers, aims to reproduce the Venetian premiere text rather than what Handel’s autograph score contains. It’s good to have the full concluding dance suite and (as appendices) two pieces Handel cut before the first night. Poppea’s sparkling Act One aria “Fa’ quanto vuoi” does get performed and recorded; less so the tender Ottone/Poppea duet, “No, no, ch’io non apprezzo,” adapted, like so many pieces in the work, from Handel’s earlier Italian cantatas. In sum: an excellent account of a very fine opera.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.