PERFORMER: Alastair Miles, Delia Jones, Derek LeeRagin, Donna Brown, Michael ChanceEnglish Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 438 009-2
Intrigue, corruption, sleaze: no, not the Palace of Westminster but the imperial court of Rome, c50AD. The Emperor’s wife, Agrippina, deceives and manipulates everyone, including her husband and son; but with one exception, the noble Ottone, none of the characters exactly has clean hands.
Handel, with a born dramatist’s eye, paints them all in vivid colours and sweeps the action along. So too does John Eliot Gardiner in this exemplary recording. The recitatives propelling the narrative (with the late, much-missed Timothy Mason on cello) are lively, often witty, yet have a natural flow, and the English Baroque Soloists capture the richness of scoring and variety of mood in some of Handel’s most inspired arias.
The cast is not only without a weak link, but well chosen to point up the characterisation. Delia Jones in the title role manages to sound both like a ruthless schemer, with an aptly sinister edge to her tone, and a tormented woman. Donna Brown’s Poppea is no less devious but more frivolous. There is also a fine contrast between the countertenor voices of Michael Chance as the much-maligned Ottone and Derek Lee Ragin as Agrippina’s son Nerone. Where the former exploits the patrician dignity of his Anglican-trained tone to portray the nobility and essential decency of Ottone (his lament ‘Voi che udite’ in Act II, after he has been abandoned by all his friends, is one of the great highlights), the latter uses his more sultry tone to depict the pleasure-seeking, youthful Nerone.
Alastair Miles is a mite stiff, but authoritative as Emperor Claudio, and Anne Sofie von Otter contributes a final curtain aria as the goddess Giunone. The only alternative recording available, McGegan’s on Harmonia Mundi, cannot touch this one for stylish characterisation or sheer bravura. Barry Millington