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Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano
Il Pomo d'Oro
Dir: Riccardo Minasi

rec: April & May 2013, 's-Gravenwezel (B), Kasteel 's-Gravenwezel (Orangerie)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875055982 (© 2015) (71'49")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1704-1759): Britannico (Mi paventi il figlio indegno; Se la mia vita, o figlio); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Agrippina (HWV 6) (L'alma mia fra le tempeste; Ogni vento; Pensieri, voi mi tormentate); Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690): Germanico sul Reno (O soavi tormenti dell'alma); Paolo Giuseppe MAGNI (c1650-1737): Nerone infante (Date all'armi o spirti fieri); Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764): Nero (Gią tutto valore); Giuseppe Maria ORLANDINI (1676-1760): Nerone (Tutta furie e tutta sdegno); Giacomo Antonio PERTI (1661-1756): Nerone fatto Cesare (Date all'armi o spirti fieri; Questo brando, questo folgore); Nicolo Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): L'Agrippina (Con troppo fiere immagini; Mormorando anch'il ruschello); Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1701-1775): Agrippina moglie di Tiberio (Deh, lasciami in pace; Non ho pił vele); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Germanicus (TWV deest) (Rimembranza crudel)

Vinciane Baudhuin, Dympha Vandenabeele, oboe; Jean-Franēois Madeuf, Pierre-Yves Madeuf, horn, trumpet; Riccardo Minasi, Alfia Bakieva, Stefano Barneschi, violin; Annelies Decock, violin, viola; Giulio D'Alessio, viola; Lea-Rahel Bader, cello; Elise Christiaens, double bass; Maxim Emelyanychev, harpsichord

If an opera from the 18th century is performed or recorded there is a good chance that one of the roles will be taken by Ann Hallenberg. The Swedish mezzo is one of the most sought-after opera singers of our time. If she participates in a performance you can be sure that her role will be fully explored from a dramatic point of view. One of the roles she particularly likes is that of Agrippina who has the title role in one of Handel's most famous opera which was already a great success in his own time. This role was the starting point for the programme which she recorded under the title of "Agrippina".

She looked for more operas in which Agrippina plays a role and - to her surprise - found out that not all Agrippinas refer to the same woman. In fact, there are three different Agrippinas although they are related. Two of them are daughters of the Roman consul Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63-12 BC). Vipsania Agrippina who figures in Agrippina moglie di Tiberio (Sammartini) was the daughter from his first marriage and was married to Emperor Augustus's stepson Tiberius. The second is Julia Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Agrippa's second wife Julia, Augustus's daughter. She was married to Germanicus and figures in the operas of the same name by Legrenzi and Telemann as well as in Porpora's L'Agrippina. The title role in Handel's opera - and in those by Perti, Magni, Orlandini, Mattheson and Graun - is the daughter of the latter pair, Julia Agrippina, also known as Agrippinilla.

Handel's opera is the only in the programme which is regularly performed these days. Of the other operas Telemann's Germanicus is the best-known, thanks to the growing interest in the composer's vocal music. It dates from 1704 and was written for a performance in the opera of Leipzig, the second public opera house in Germany - after the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg - which was founded in 1693 and went bankrupt in 1720. The opera is lost but a number of arias from Telemann's operas for Leipzig are extant and 40 of them could be identified as having been part of Germanicus. Telemann's operas have recitatives in German but the arias are in Italian - as is the aria included here - or French. Later in his career Telemann was to play an important role in the opera in Hamburg which in the decades before was dominated by Johann Mattheson. Seven operas from the latter's pen are known; the music of three of them is lost. Nero is not one of his own operas but an adaptation of Nerone by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini. It was performed in 1723, two years after the original opera's premiere in Venice "to deafening applause". Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, in his liner-notes, mentions that in this performance the two great rivals at the London opera stage, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, both participated. The score is lost but the Hamburg score has been preserved and thanks to information from Mattheson's book Der Musikalische Patriot it was possible to identify which arias were from Orlandini's opera and which were added by Mattheson. This enhances our knowledge about the latter's opera activities as well as the performance practice in the Hamburg opera.

It is telling that twelve of the sixteen arias are recorded here for the first time. Orlandini is one of the least-known names. His operas were frequently performed across Italy which testifies to their popularity. Very little is known about Paolo Giuseppe Magni who was from Milan where he also worked all his life. Nero infante is the title of a manuscript at Berkeley Library (USA) which is one of the names of the libretto. In fact it is an opera which Magni performed in 1703 under the name of Agrippina madre di Nerone. However, it is not an opera from his own pen but a reworking of Nerone fatto Cesare by Giacomo Antonio Perti. The latter was for many years maestro di cappella of the basilica of San Petronio in Bologna. He is mainly known for his sacred works but also composed a number of operas most of which are lost. The programme includes two arias of the same text, Date all'armi o spirti fieri: one by Perti and one by Magni which he inserted in his adaptation of Perti's opera. A second aria from the same opera by Perti is added as a bonus: Questo brando, questo folgore. "In the manuscript score of the opera it seems that [this aria], a virtuosic duet between voice and solo violin, is to be sung by Agrippina, while a later check with the surviving libretti revealed that it is in fact an aria for King Tigrane - both characters are written in soprano clef and have a very similar tessitura". I doubt whether this is really an item: it seems composers felt free to shift an aria from one character to another.

Giovanni Battista Sammartini is well-known and played a key role in the development of the classical style, in particular the development of the symphony. Only a few operas from his pen are known; of these only Memet has been recorded. Giovanni Legrenzi is another composer who is mainly known for his instrumental works. His oeuvre includes a considerable number of operas which are different from the other on this programme in that the arias don't have the dacapo texture of 18th-century operas. One aria from Germanico sur Reno is performed here in a reduction for voice and bc from a collection of arias preserved in Naples.

Lastly Carl Heinrich Graun; he and his brother Johann Gottlieb were in the service of Frederick the Great. Johann Gottlieb mostly composed instrumental music, Carl Heinrich was a singer and composer of vocal works. His most famous work is the Passion oratorio Der Tod Jesu. His operas are virtually unknown and that makes the inclusion of two arias from Britannico particularly important. It is from 1751 which makes it one of the latest pieces in the programme.

This is definitely a most interesting disc. The fact that so many arias from unknown operas are included is reason enough to recommend it to opera lovers. The variety and quality of the arias is impressive and if they are representative of the quality of the operas from which they are taken there is no reason why today - for instance in festivals - they are completely ignored whereas the same operas by the likes of Handel and Vivaldi are performed over and over again. Ann Hallenberg makes the most of these arias. One of the main shortcomings of aria recordings is the lack of dramatic context. Fortunately the liner-notes give much information and the story and historical context of Agrippina are known. Hallenberg generally avoids extravagances in ornamentation and cadenzas. As far as the latter is concerned there is one exception. That concerns Graun's aria Mi paventi il figlio in degno. "[In] Stockholm we found a musical clock, manufactured in Copenhagen around 1770, which plays the aria at breakneck speed and with a very unusual final cadenza which has been adapted by Ann Hallenberg for this recording". That was a pretty bad idea: it sounds highly artificial, and it seems that she has overlooked that an instrumental adaptation follows its own rules and tells us virtually nothing about how such a piece was performed by a singer. Another problem here is the usual one: Hallenberg uses quite a lot of vibrato which is hard to swallow. I am also disappointed about the playing of Il Pomo d'Oro. It seems Riccardo Minasi's aim lately is to play as uglily a possible. If that is the case he has succeeded spectacularly.

It desires a fair amount of tolerance to really enjoy this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Ann Hallenberg
Il Pomo d'Oro

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