Although Handel's Agrippina is considered to be one of his finest works, it isn't presented very often. Composed in 1709, it tells the story of Nero's scheming mother, Agrippina, married to Roman Emperor Claudius, who plans his downfall so her son Nero (from a previous marriage) can replace him. The opera was highly successful at its premiere although it was obvious that Handel had borrowed extensively from previous scores, but many composers do that. Currently there are three DVDs of the opera, this new one as well as a performance with Arnold Ostman and London Baroque, and a French production conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire. This new production from Saarländisches Staatstheater is impressive. Sets and costumes are by Claudia Doderer. There is a simple two-tiered set connected by a stairway. Costumes seem appropriate, and the cast is uniformly strong, particularly Susanne Geb in the title role. There are many recitatives—subtitles help the viewer get through them. No performance date is provided—the copyright is 2012. Video and audio are outstanding. Although there is a detailed synopsis of the plot, there is no listing of tracks and timings, a major omission—viewers like to be able to locate arias and sections without having to look at the on-screen listing—but on this DVD track numbers are not provided. Why? In spite of these production deficiencies, this issue has much to offer lovers of Baroque opera.
Don't expect the light-hearted gaiety and sparkle of Rossini's treatment of the Cinderella story in this version by Massenet composed about 8 decades later. But Massenet's charming work is a masterpiece in every way, if perhaps a bit lengthy. It is filled with delectable music, and often there is magic. The leading role is a showcase for a mezzo: it was a favorite of Frederica von Stade who recorded it in 1978, and now we have this first video and it is a winner in almost every way. The familiar story is presented simply. The production by Barbara de Limburg i works beautifully—three walls of a hall with multiple doors through which people leave and enter, and costumes by Laurent Pelly are beautiful indeed. Joyce DiDonato is outstanding in the title role. Ewa Podles is an imperious and often amusing as well as menacing stepmother, Eglise Gutiérrz a buxom brilliant coloratura as the Fairy. Massenet wrote the role of the Prince for a mezzo, but in the Von Stade recording it was sung by tenor Nicolai Gedda who, unfortunately, was far from his best at the time. Here the role is sung as the composer intended, and mezzo Alice Coote seems perfect—although I would prefer it be sung by a tenor—can you imagine Jonas Kaufmann as the Prince? Veteran Jean-Philippe Lafont has been around for some time, vocally he is a bit insecure, but he acts well and is effective as the troubled father. Bertrand de Billy is an old hand at this repertory, and the orchestra is first-rate. Video and audio are excellent. However, as was the case with Agrippina mentioned above, there are major production problems. There are no DVD program notes and there is no printed list of tracks and timings! This information should always be provided for ease in viewing. In spite of this shortcoming, this issue is well worth investigating; it is unlikely there will be another video for many years.
Russian-born German composer Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) was a despicable man who idolized Hitler—check S.G.S.'s commentary in his review of Pfitzner's large-scale cantata Von Deutsche Seele (REVIEW). But his music often is impressive, although generally not very well known. He did have strong support from Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere of the opera Palestrina in 1917, and showed his continued high regard for Pfitzner by stating shortly before his death in 1962, "despite all of the dark experiences of today I am still confident that Palestrina will remain." There have been several fine audio recordings over the years featuring Julius Patzak, Nicolai Gedda, Franz Mazura and Peter Schreier in the title role. The subject for the opera is almost much ado about nothing: Palestrina, at the time distressed by the death of his wife, was ordered by Cardinal Borromeo to compose a new mass to convince the Pope and Council of Trent to allow more polyphony in the church—one wonders what the fuss was all about. We witness the anguish of the composer (beautifully sung by tenor Christopher Ventris) dealing with composers of the past, a choir of angels, bickering students, and a hoard of bishops, cardinals, archbishops and finally the pope, all shallow opportunists. This new production designed by Christian Stücki, inappropriately brings the plot into contemporary times, In a bonus feature, Stücke laughs quite a bit as he explains his concept of the opera which includes vivid colors, clergy eating ice cream cones, and some of the clergy hierarchy arriving on the scene in a white limousine. Perhaps that is why he is laughing? The single set works well, costumes are mostly bright green and red, and some characters wear puppet masks—and some of them sing while suspended over the stage. Lots of time, money and energy went into this, and musical qualities are superb, particularly conductor Simione Young—but I rather imagine composer Palestrina is rolling over in his grave. Exceptionally fine video and audio, but most opera fans will wish to skip this ill-advised effort.
R.E.B. (April 2013)