One thing is for sure: whether you like Baroque opera or not, you will never be bored by an opera conducted by René Jacobs. By shaking up convention with his subtle readings, sometimes even rewriting the composer’s score, the Belgian conductor is the one of those rare few who always find an elegant way to bring the repetitive mannerisms of the Baroque to life.

René Jacobs © Marco Borggreve
René Jacobs
© Marco Borggreve

Thirteen years after his first Agrippina, he offered Paris a new production on 14 May in the Salle Pleyel, this time in concert form, with new soloists and the remarkable Akademie für alte Musik Berlin – almost the same cast with whom he released an Agrippina CD and performed a staged version in Berlin, both in 2010.

Agrippina, written by a 24-year-old Handel, is most often remembered as the opera which catapulted him to the top, and the only one with a libretto written especially for him. We will probably never know how the young, foreign musician persuaded the powerful Venetian cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (32 years his senior) not only to write the libretto for him, but also to stage the first production of Agrippina in the theatre owned by the cardinal’s family.

The plot of this “dramma per musica” is loosely based on historical facts and is typical of Venetian opera of the time: Agrippina, the emperor Claudio’s fourth wife and niece, plots to use her influence and erotic magnetism to help her son Nerone from her first marriage establish power. It is opera seria punctuated by ironic and comic twists that show how Venetians perceived the Roman emperors: they are all driven by a hunger for power, spiced with libidinal stirs.

The opera focuses on two female protagonists, totally opposite in nature: Agrippina and Poppea, both sopranos but each with different qualities. The one is seen by Jacobs as darker, more dramatic, and saturnine (Agrippina, performed by Alex Penda), while the other is seen as rather light and lyrical (Poppea, sung by Sunhae Im), with more coloratura and lightness in her voice.

In a new a concert production by Jacobs, the singers, liberated from the usual excessive demands of stage directors and “modern” staging, move freely and wear suitable contemporary costumes that underline their character. None of the characters are what they seem to be – neither likeable, nor completely black and white.

The exception is perhaps the vulnerable and naïve Ottone, who chooses love over power, sung by the impeccable American countertenor Bejun Mehta who brings to his character a hint of melancholy. His opening aria “Lusinghiera mia speranza”, with limpidly executed legatos, was immediately convincing of the sincerity of his character. Not to mention his prudence in one of Handel’s most moving duets, “No, no ch’io non apprezzo”, brought back to life by René Jacobs, sung with brilliant lyric soprano Sunhae Im.

Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda (a.k.a. Alexandrina Pendatchanska) in the main role gave us an Agrippina with a dark timbre and thicker tones. She was, in her singing and her appearance, everything that Agrippina should be: a threatening and dramatic soprano, rather cold, a manipulative character, very comfortable in the high to mid-register. Her “L’alma mia fra le tempeste” and “Tu ben degno sei dell’allor” displayed the unwaveringly powerful richness of her thick vocal colour.

Korean soprano Sunhae Im was very believable in the role of the irresistible and flirtatious Poppea. She brought the right dose of lightness, versatility and coloratura to every aria, yet remained convincing as this childish, irresistible, playful and falsely naïve character. Her articulation and fluidity in the top register are effortless, and even her Italian sounded natural.

Slovenian bass-baritone Marcos Fink, with his beefy, noble timbre, managed to play the emperor Claudio with a natural elegance, on the verge of parody. He emphasised Claudio’s narcissistic traits with his Berlusconian look and attitude, wearing black glasses and dressed in a flashy, modern costume.

What surprised me most was the fact that almost all the secondary roles were performed by exceptional singers: Christian Senn, a flawless baritone with his intense, resonant Pallante, simply cannot remain in the background.

With suitable tempi and the full involvement of every single musician, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, one of the most thriving and brilliant Baroque orchestras in Europe, followed all the dramatic situations with coherence, passion and elegance, and never left us bored or disconnected from the action.

Once again, René Jacobs highlighted a jewel of Baroque music without interfering excessively with the composer’s ideas, and certainly deserves a “Viva Jacobs” in Salle Pleyel just as much as Handel deserved “Viva il caro Sassone” from the Venetians after the first production of Agrippina, some 304 years ago.

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