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Friday, February 01, 2008

A Review for Friday. Sorry, I have gotten behind!

George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)

Agrippina (Drama in three acts) (1709-10) [154:00]

Claudius: Günter von Kannen
Agrippina: Barbara Daniels
Nerone: David Kuebler
Poppea: Janice Hall
Ottone: Claudio Nicolai
Pallante: Ulrich Hielscher
Narciso: Eberhard Katz
Lesbo: Carlos Feller

The London Baroque Players
Arnold Östman
Stage Direction by Michael Hampe.

Filmed 1-4 May 1985 at the Rokokotheater Swchetzingen.

EUROARTS DVD 2054538 [154:00]

Because compact discs and DVDS are of such high and lasting quality and are so relatively inexpensive to manufacture, the music world enjoys quite an embarrassment of riches. Record companies continue to mine the depths of recorded performances, and now with the DVD firmly ensconced as the medium of choice for video productions, the market is beginning to see as big a flood of them as it did in the eighties and nineties with compact discs. The result is a seriously mixed bag where quality is concerned, and after having suffered through this production, I wish that the decision makers who let this one out of the can were a bit more discerning.

Handel’s convoluted drama about the behind the scenes machinations of Agrippina, who was the wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and mother of Nero, was a tremendous success when it first hit the Italian stages in 1709. And as Handel operas go, this one has some dramatic thrust to it, and some memorable tunes, in spite of the fact that as usual, Handel recycled a good bit of the music from earlier works. In this production, roles that would have been sung by castrati have been replaced with their octave-down male counterparts instead of countertenors, a decision that works well, and frankly makes this nearly unbearable production a few grams more tolerable.

For the life of me, I do not understand why first, opera companies cast singers who are so clueless as to baroque style in productions of baroque operas, and second why, when we have come miles in terms of stylistic and historical performance practice and in the ability to play period instruments well, that the label executives continue to pummel us with productions such as this one that are so severely dated and just plain poorly executed.

Let us begin with the orchestra. Ok, so the London Baroque Players have a bit of a reputation and some recordings to their credit. They play here with nary an ounce of grace and poise, honking and screeching their way through the score with all the enthusiasm that one might expect from a group of moonlighters. This is just plain ugly playing and the close microphones and the boxy acoustic of the Rokokotheater does not help. The sound falls dead at the first row of seats, and it is not enhanced at all when played through a stereo system.

Then there is the singing. Good God! A visit to the local dog pound would result in less barking, woofing, screeching and hacking. David Kuebler sings with a throaty edge to his tone that is maddening, and he puts so much pressure on the voice that there is nowhere for beauty of tone, if he had any, to blossom. Couple that with his forced coloratura and you get some pretty unbearable singing. Barbara Daniels looks regal enough as Agrippina, but she sings Handel with a Verdi voice that overpowers the music. Günter von Kannen is about as kingly as a walrus as he stumbles around the stage looking like and aging out of makeup circus clown, and singing as though he had a sweat sock stuffed down his throat.

The only mildly saving grace here is Janice Hall’s Poppea. This lady can actually sing. Her tone is lovely, she sings Handel with a clue or two about the style and she does not try to overpower us with sheer volume.

The supporting characters are miscast as well. Carlos Feller and Claudio Nicolai were already shall we say, mature, when they appeared in this performance. They are costumed and made up to look even older, and then when you have to listen to their forced, swallowed and tension filled tone, and their mere approximations of the pitches, you wonder from just which home for retired opera singers they were bussed in for this production.

To sum it up, this one should have never made it out of the file cabinet, and were viewers unfortunate enough to have this as their first Baroque opera experience, the cause would be set back a full generation. A request to Euroarts: please don’t do this to us again. No one wants to waste 154 minutes of his life on such third rate product.

Kevin Sutton

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