López Banzo Gets a Grip on Agrippina

SpainSpain Handel: Agrippina, Al Ayre Español, Eduardo López Banzo (conductor), Madrid National Auditorium, 12.5.2013 (JMI)

Concert Version

Agrippina: Ann Hallenberg
Nerone: Vivica Genaux
Poppea: María Espada
Ottone: Carlos Mena
Claudio: Luigi De Donato
Lesbo: Josep Ramón Olivè
Narciso: José Hernández Pastor
Pallante: Enrique Sánchez Ramos

The CNDM (Centro Nacional de Difusión Musical) hosts a wide range of musical cycles during the year, among which the so-called Baroque Universe presents operas in concert form. A few months ago we enjoyed an excellent Rodelinda, and now another Handel opera, Agrippina, has had a turn. Again, it was a success.

Agrippina,the second opera written by Handel during his stay in Italy, is based on the story of Agrippina, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, and her machinations to ensure that her son will get the crown of the Roman Empire. The libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani is one of the best in the history of opera, full of irony, humor and double meanings. Surely the Venetian origin of the Cardinal and his opposition to Rome had much to do with the birth of this libretto; obviously, the artistic freedom enjoyed in Venice in 1709 had little relationship to what was happening at the time in the Papal States. Handel used the libretto to compose music well-suited to this kind of semi-serious opera, borrowing – as was usual at the time – numbers from other operas and oratorios of the same Italian period. Arias from his Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno are here, as are some pages from Rodrigo.

Opera lovers know that Al Ayre Español is one of the best Baroque Orchestras around and, with musical director Eduardo Lopez Banzo conducting from the harpsichord, they proved it once again. I have previously attended very good versions of Handel operas by Lopez Banzo, and hence my expectations were high. However, his conducting in the first act was largely disappointing, and I found his reading short on energy and inspiration (although the orchestra and singers were mainly fine). Things changed significantly in the second half of the concert (Acts II and III), and Lopez Banzo was again at his usual excellent level. In my opinion he benefited from the invaluable assistance of Ann Hallenberg, who had a key part in the success of the concert.

Hallenberg was a great Agrippina from start to finish. Not only did she sing beautifully, but she showed a mastery of the character beyond the reach of her colleagues. She was largely responsible for the change of attitude of the audience in the second half of the concert, and without her the experience could have been very different. She is an exceptional artist, and I cannot think of anyone better in this repertoire.

American mezzo soprano Vivica Genaux made a remarkable Nero. Her voice is not exceptional in timbre and volume, but her coloratura is breathtaking. She was at her very best in the aria Come nube che fugge dal vento, which is taken from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.

A most pleasant surprise was the performance of countertenor Carlos Mena as Ottone. All his arias had a seal of quality, expressiveness and good taste, apart from a nicer sound than sometimes found in this voice. I think it’s the best performance I remember from him.

Another pleasant surprise was the performance of soprano Maria Espada in the character of Poppea. She has an attractive soprano, very well handled, which only lacks some further sensuality for the role.

The audience was warmly appreciative, providing a triumphal reception at the final bows, which were taken by the full ensemble.

Jose Mª. Irurzun