Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Agrippina - A Commentary

Other characters in the opera:

LESBO, Claudio’s servant
GIUNONE (Juno), the Goddess
Agrippina [December/January, 1709/1710, Venice, Teatro S Giovanni Grisostomo]


[The recording referred to below is
Complete opera:
Sally Bradshaw; Wendy Hill; Lisa Saffer; Nicholas Isherwood; Drew Minter; Michael Dean; Ralf Popken; Bela Szilagyi; Gloria Banditelli; Capella Savaria; Nicholas McGegan
Harmonia Mundi 907063.65]
References in these notes to 'D&K' are to Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp's masterful account of the operas, Handel's Operas 1704-1726 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987)

[The system of asterisks reflects the author’s appreciation of the arias, etc –
* = noteworthy; ** = excellent; *** = outstanding]

Act I
‘Volo pronto’ [Disk ; track 7] (***)
‘L’alma mia frà le tempeste’ [Disk ; track 8] (**) [‘‘L’alma mia’, whose catchy melody (not his own) was a favourite with Handel at all periods of his life’, D&K, p.120]
‘Tù ben degno’ [Disk ; track 12] (**) – derived from Rodrigo and used again in Giulio Cesare
‘Lusinghiera mia speranza’ [Disk ; track 13] (**) [‘the music with its D minor tonality, frequent chromaticism, and interrupted cadences seems to anticipate the woes to come’, D&K, p.123]
‘Vaghe perle’ [Disk ; track 14] (**) [‘‘L’alma mia’, whose catchy melody (not his own) was a favourite with Handel at all periods of his life’, D&K, p.120]
‘Vieni, o cara’ [Disk ; track 21] (**) – used again in Ottone [‘one of the gems of the score’, D&K, p.125]
‘Non hò cor che per amarti’ [Disk ; track 2] (**) – used extensively, including Flavio and Ezio
‘Se giunge un dispetto’ [Disk ; track 3] (***) – used again in Solomon

Act II
‘Coronato il crin’ [Disk ; track 5] (***) – one of several arias derived from ‘Cor fedele’ [‘Clori, Tirsi e Fileno’] (September/October 1707, a couple of months before this opera); there is appears as the sublimely beautiful ‘Come la rondinella’
‘Otton, qual portentoso [...] Voi, che udite’ [Disk ; tracks 12 & 13, accompagnato and aria] (***) – the aria used again in Teseo, Ottone, Athalia and Theodora
‘Vaghe fonti’ [Disk ; track 15] (***) [‘scored with muted violins, pizzicato basses, and two recorders, suggesting the cool trickle of water [it] shows Handel’s perennial mastery of texture: the ritornello melody is Keiser’s, and there is not an accidental throughout, yet it is perfect in its context’, D&K, p.123] – variously used again, including in Muzio Scevola
Col peso del tuo amor’ [Disk ; track 20] (***) – used previously in Rodrigo, and later in Rinaldo, Il Pastor fido and Flavio (where it becomes the gorgeous ‘Ricordati, mio ben’)
‘Pensieri [...] Ciel, soccorvi [....] pensieri’ [Disk ; track 22] (***) [See ’Comments’ below]
‘Basta, che sol tù chieda’ [Disk ƒ; track 2] (**) – typical of the arias for the base [‘Handel wrote the part for a sepulchral bass with a compass of two octaves and a third from the C below the bass stave, and made the most of the opportunities for grotesque characterization by filling his arias with giant strides and huge leaps’ D&K, p.125]
‘Ogni vento’ [Diskƒ; track 3] (***) [‘She [Agrippina] ends the act with the exuberant simile aria ‘Ogni vento’, whose seductive rhythm, anticipating the lilt of the Viennese waltz, and fascinatingly irregular phrase-lengths must have set every foot in Venice tapping’, D&K, pp.120-121]

Act III (25/11/07)
‘Bel piacere’ [Diskƒ; track 12] (***) [‘Perhaps the most individual of her [Poppea’s] arias is the last, ‘Bel piacere’, whose irregular combination of 3/8 and 2/4 rhythm (with a 3/4 hemiola bar in the B section) teases the ear and haunts the memory. The melody [...] is strong enough to stand on its own, without any accompaniment except in the ritornellos’, D&K, p.122] – used again in Rinaldo, even to the same A section words.
‘Come nube che fugge dal vento’ [Diskƒ; track 14] (**)
‘Se vuoi pace, o volto amato’ [Diskƒ; track 17] (***) – derived from ‘Cor fedele and used again in Radamisto (‘Dopo torbide procelle’), Acis and Galatea (‘As when the dove’) and Judas Maccabaeus (‘Wise men flattering may deceive you’)
‘V’accendato le Tede’ [Diskƒ; track 20] (**)


If Handel’s first two operas are effectively work-books, drawing on earlier material and anticipating the rest of his career, then Agrippina exceeds them. Nearly every aria, every tune, will be used again and again. An example of one setting- ‘Col peso del tuo amor’ will show the workings of past and future in this opera:

‘Piacer che non si dona’, Amarilli vezzosa [dramatic cantata] 1707 (copied 1708)
‘Il dolce foco mio’, Rodrigo, Autumn 1707
Poppea, ‘Col peso del tuo amor’, Agrippina, December 1709/ January 1710
 ‘No! non basta un infedele’, Il pastor fido, November 1712
‘Ricordati, mio ben’, Flavio, May 1723
‘Happy beauty’, The Triumph of Time and Truth, March, 1757

But it’s much more than a collection. Agrippina represents Handel’s coming of age as a composer of Italian opera seria. Mainwaring famously records the cries of ‘viva il caro Sassone’ at its reception in Venice. Handel had a great libretto to work with: here the evil, cunning, machinations and manipulations of the Roman court become the subject of dark satiric fun. Everyone is implicated in lying, cheating, deceiving and conniving – at times (as when Poppea has variously hidden her three suitors around her chamber) reduced to farce to maintain their illusions. Rarely can an essentially comic opera have had such a serious subject (the later abominations of Nero do not provide any impropriety, as he is pictured here before his reign, essentially a nervous mummy’s boy). In the characterisation of Agrippina, though, Handel created his greatest dramatic writing so far. It’s worth quoting in full Dean and Knapp’s account of the accompagnato/aria sequence ‘Pensieri [...] Ciel, soccorvi [....] pensieri’:

‘She emerges in all her formidable power in the scena ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’ towards the end  of Act II, which reveals for the first time the strength and novelty of Handel’s dramatic genius. The fourteen-bar ritornello for violins and bass in octaves contains almost as many rests as notes; by means of wide contrasts in rhythm, note values, and dynamics (pianissimo to fortissimo on the final emphatic Gs) it paints an astonishing picture of mingled stealth, anxiety, guilt, and resolution. The voice enters with a new phrase and dveleops a long irregular winding melody, attended by echoes and variations from a solo oboe and punctuated from time to time by the violin figures of the ritornello. In the B section Agrippina invokes heaven’s assistance. It is a brisk demand rather than a prayer, as the change in time (4/4), rhythm (even bass quavers), scoring (four parts), key (relative major), and tempo (faster, though this is implied, not stated) makes abundantly clear. After this the da capo strikes home with decisive force. But the most imaginative stroke is yet to come – a second return in condensed form, like a bad dream, after a recitative in which Agrippina recognizes Ottone’s virtue and Poppea’s courage. [D&K, p.120]

[Note: the second reprise is omitted on the recording used here.]

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