CARL HEINRICH GRAUN (1704 – 1759), GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), GIOVANNI BATTISTA LEGRENZI (1626 – 1690), PAOLO GIUSEPPE MAGNI (circa 1650 – 1737), JOHANN MATTHESON (1681 – 1764), GIUSEPPE MARIA ORLANDINI (1676 – 1760), GIACOMO ANTONIO PERTI (1661 – 1756), NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768), GIOVANNI BATTISTA SAMMARTINI (1701 – 1775), and GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN (1681 – 1767): Agrippina – Baroque Opera Arias—Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Il Pomo d’Oro; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded in the Orangerie of Kasteel ‘s-Gravenwezel, ‘s-Gravenwezel, Belgium, April – May 2013; deutsche harmonia mundi 88875055982; 1 CD, 74:54; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
If the anecdotes preserved in the writings of Romans of the ilk of Pliny the Elder and Tacitus are to be believed, the historical Agrippina the Younger, also known as Agrippinilla, was perhaps even more duplicitous than her most famous operatic incarnation as the title character in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Agrippina. To the Twenty-First-Century observer, it might seem remarkable that the libretto for Händel’s tale of the scheming machinations of Agrippina was penned by a cleric, but Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani—who, in addition to his archiepiscopal and poetic duties, owned the theatre in which Händel’s Agrippina premièred—was a politicized prelate with much to say about his ecclesiastical and worldly adversaries. In that regard, he was the perfect man for the job of crafting a libretto about one of the most powerful women in the annals of imperial Rome. It is hardly surprising that history should attribute a litany of nefarious deeds to the mother of Nero: how might such a son have been the issue of any but a venomous mother? Furthermore, she was the sister of Caligula, with whose reign modern observers equate every imaginable debauchery—and with whom, true to the spirit of his court, she was alleged to have had incestuous relations. It is unlikely that almost any historical figure about whom contemporary evidence is sparse was either as good or as evil as commentators would have her or him to be, but there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that Agrippina was a woman of cunning, conniving, and intellectual guerrilla warfare. That she plotted to ensure that her son Nero would become emperor upon the death of her fourth husband, the emperor Claudius, is virtually certain, though the suggestion that she poisoned Claudius was based upon fantasy more than fact. Exhibiting strangely modern sensibilities, she is known to have increased her visibility and gained support among the Roman populace by writing a widely-read book about the tribulations that she endured. As empress, she wielded enormous power, Claudius elevating her not to importance secondary to his own but to equal status. From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, it seems inevitable that personalities as flamboyant as Agrippina’s and Nero’s would come into conflict. It is likely that Nero, whose reign as emperor she ultimately conspired to end, had a hand in her death. Hers was an operatic life, and composers and librettists in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries recognized the potential of such a woman to exercise upon the stage a measure of the authority that she possessed in life. Nearly two thousand years after Agrippina’s death in AD 59, enter phenomenal Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg. Temperamentally, the baser elements of Agrippina’s character could not be more foreign to this wonderful lady, but as a creature of the stage she can spew venom like a threatened cobra. More importantly, she possesses the technical prowess, the stylistic affinity, and the vocal resources needed to sing Baroque repertory authoritatively. Even in portraying characters as morally corrupt as Händel’s Agrippina, she invests her portrayals with veins of free-flowing humanity. After all, what is more dangerous than a stunningly attractive, charming villainess?
Magnificently accompanied on her journey through the musical legacies of no fewer than three ladies who bore the name Agrippina by the period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro and Riccardo Minasi, Ms. Hallenberg, an artist of uncompromising integrity, has never sounded better on disc. Her voice, equally comfortable in Baroque repertory, Rossini, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, or any music to which she dedicates her awe-inspiring powers of musical concentration and communication, makes of the most throat-stressing challenges among the arias on Agrippina expressions of timeless emotions. She and her husband, musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, are a musical team par excellence. In addition to understanding the capabilities of her voice, Mr. Schmitt-Hallenberg knows every element of his wife’s stage comportment. Together, they find music that aligns ideally with Ms. Hallenberg’s prodigious gifts. The selections on Agrippina are anything but safe, comfortable vocal territory for any singer, but this artist approaches them with confidence that never deserts her, no matter how fiendish the bravura writing. Maestro Minassi is not just a willing collaborator but an enthusiastic co-conspirator in this exhumation of the incorruptible corpses of musical Agrippinas, pacing each selection with attention to music, text, and Ms. Hallenberg’s formidable breath control. In both individual obbligati and ensemble, the virtuosi of Il Pomo d'Oro contribute far more than accompaniment to the dramatic profile of each aria, their phrasing matched to the singer’s with flawless precision. To the credit of everyone involved, each number in succession has its own atmosphere in which a very specific portrait is created.
First performed in 1676, Giovanni Legrenzi’s Germanico sul reno is the earliest score sampled on this enlightening disc, but the Agrippina represented in Legrenzi’s opera is not Händel’s femme fatale but Julia Agrippina, sometimes styled Agrippina the Elder, the wife of the prominent Roman general Germanicus and the mother of Emperor Caligula and the infamous Agrippina. Reportedly a woman of great virtue whose marriage was a happy one, Julia Agrippina’s example was seemingly ignored by her most upwardly-mobile pair of offspring. Ms. Hallenberg sings the aria ‘O soavi tormenti dell'alma’ with ravishingly lovely tone and poise worthy of a Roman lady of exalted birth. Few singers before the public today can equal Ms. Hallenberg’s phrasing, which she puts to profoundly expressive use in this music. Dating from 1692, Giacomo Antonio Perti’s Nerone fatto Cesare is also a transitional work of the generation that linked the Early Baroque of Cavalli and his contemporaries to the more familiar operas of Händel and Vivaldi. Hearing the arias from Nerone fatto Cesare included on this disc awakens curiosity about the composer’s still-undiscovered scores. The impassioned ‘Date all'armi, o spirti fieri!’ receives from Ms. Hallenberg a performance of unrelenting intensity, the solidity of tone conveying a captivating singularity of dramatic purpose. Relegated to a ‘bonus track’ after it was discovered in manuscript sources that it was originally sung not by Agrippina but by Tigrane, ‘Questo brando, questo folgore’ partners the mezzo-soprano’s tornadic singing with a masterfully-played violin obbligato to dazzling effect. Ms. Hallenberg slices through the music with vocal swordplay, the rhythmic sharpness of her singing gratifyingly unperturbed from first note to last and her ornamentation exciting but flawlessly tasteful.
Not least because of his tutelage of Caffarelli and Farinelli, two of the most acclaimed castrati of the first half of the Eighteenth Century, Nicola Antonio Porpora was among the most influential musicians of his generation. He is now perhaps better remembered as a pedagogue than as a composer, though espousal of his music by several notable singers has increased the visibility of his operas and cantatas in recent years. Composed for Naples in 1708, L'Agrippina was Porpora’s first opera, and a more persuasive advocate for its revival than Ms. Hallenberg cannot be imagined. Porpora, too, depicted Julia Agrippina, and this lady could hope for no more sensitive musical tribute than ‘Mormorando anch'io ruscello.’ Ms. Hallenberg sings the piece exquisitely, the lilting melodic line caressed by her warm-brandy timbre. The contrast with the concentrated feeling of ‘Con troppo fieri immagini’ is immediately apparent, but Ms. Hallenberg sings both arias with panache. In his 1704 Leipzig opera Germanicus, Georg Philipp Telemann also set his sights on the virtuous Julia Agrippina, and the aria ‘Rimembranza crudel’ from his 1710 adaptation of the score provides the character with a powerful scene of doubt and regret. Ms. Hallenberg is here aided exceptionally by Il Pomo d'Oro and Maestro Minassi, the strings driving the music without jeopardizing the forthrightness of her phrasing.
‘Tutta furie e tutta sdegno’ from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s 1721 Nerone is an eruption of rage of which Mozart’s Königin der Nacht would be proud, and Ms. Hallenberg’s singing of the aria is a bravura tour de force that any coloratura soprano would gladly claim as her own. The sheer brilliance of her negotiations of the divisions, not only in Orlandini’s music but in all of the arias on this disc, is incredibly impressive. The success of the Venetian première of Orlandini’s Nerone was considerable enough to prompt Johann Mattheson to produce his own adaptation of the opera, styled Nero, in Hamburg in 1723. Exercising almost total control of operatic life in Hamburg, where the dominance of star castrati never took hold, Mattheson frequently produced editions of other composers’ scores, often with newly-composed music of his own creation. The aria ‘Già tutto valore’ was written for his Nero, and Ms. Hallenberg’s performance of it reveals the breadth of Mattheson’s ingenuity. Hers is the sort of artistry that is always at the service of the music, and even the sentimental largesse of ‘Già tutto valore’ receives from her a traversal in which technical acumen combines with an attractive suggestion of emotional vulnerability.
Georg Friedrich Händel’s Agrippina (HWV 6), premièred in Venice in 1709, is one of the young composer’s most intriguing concoctions, its profusion of relatively brief arias in the Venetian style virtually unique in his operas: only in Serse and Teseo is material of such brevity employed with equal impact. Ms. Hallenberg cites singing Händel’s Agrippina as one of her favorite musical experiences, and her performances of three of the character’s arias on this disc leave no doubt about the sincerity of her assertion. The poignant lines of ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’ are sung with boundless eloquence and imagination, and the imagery of ‘Ogni vento ch'al porto lo spinga’ is vividly conveyed by Ms. Hallenberg’s idiomatic diction. Her singing of the incendiary ‘L'alma mia fra le tempeste’ is one of the pinnacles of the disc: hearing the music sung as Ms. Hallenberg sings it, it is apparent that it is not just Händel’s greater fame that makes his Agrippina the best-known of the operatic portraits excerpted here.
Paolo Giuseppe Magni’s 1703 reworking of Perti’s Nerone fatto Cesare, entitled Agrippina, madre di Nerone, produced another setting of the electrifying ‘Date all'armi o spirti fieri!’ Ms. Hallenberg sings this version no less expertly than Perti’s, her delivery of fiorature astonishingly precise but never mechanical. It was Vipsania Agrippina, the wife of Tiberius, who inspired Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Agrippina, moglie di Tiberio, premièred in Milan in 1743, and her ‘Non ho più vele, non ho più sarte’ is impeccably sung by Ms. Hallenberg, whose subsequent account of ‘Deh, lasciami in pace’ is a glowingly heartfelt plea rather than a one-dimensional operatic gesture.
Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1751 Britannico is perhaps the most ‘modern’ of the scores revived for Agrippina, its gallant style spanning the divide between late Baroque and the Viennese Classicism of Haydn, Salieri, and Mozart—a divide populated by a generation of composers whose music is still far too inadequately explored. The aria ‘Se la mia vita, o figlio’ is a wonderful piece, its nuances highlighted by Ms. Hallenberg’s imaginative, aristocratically-phrased singing. Even this pales in comparison with her take-no-prisoners performance of ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno,’ quite simply one of the most demanding arias composed in the Eighteenth Century—one so extraordinary that it survived well into the Nineteenth Century in the repertory of Pauline Viardot. The braying horn parts are played raucously by Il Pomo d'Oro’s skilled musicians, but not even their musical wizardry distracts from Ms. Hallenberg’s spirited singing. A performance as confident as this one is achieved only with meticulous study and rehearsal, but the spontaneity of her singing disguises her fastidious preparation. Not one roulade, trill, or interval flusters her. In the history of sound recording, there are some few performances that are rightly considered legendary: among the classic recordings of Claudia Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Conchita Supervía, Kirsten Flagstad, and Giulietta Simionato, Ms. Hallenberg’s interpretation of ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno’ is destined for immortality.
Surveying the history of recorded ventures similar to Agrippina limns a cautionary tale of the uncertain interactions of ambition, ego, and musicality. The guiding spirit of a disc of this nature should always be—but so rarely is—the marriage of music with the unique qualities of an individual artist. Too often, projects are founded upon what an artist can gain rather than what she can give. In the sixteen arias on Agrippina, Ann Hallenberg gives very generously. The gifts that she shares with listeners are those of musical discovery, mind-boggling technical daring, and the pleasure of hearing a great voice in its prime. In truth, though, the greatest demonstration of technique will be forgotten if it is not borne upon a tide of beauty. Above all, Agrippina is a surpassingly beautiful disc.