Promoting Historically-Inspired Performances of Early Music and Baroque Opera
Comparison of Recordings
I wrote the following comments in May 1997, soon after Gardiner's recording was released. Like McGegan's version, it was recorded in 1991, but Philips inexplicably held it back for more than five years. When the Gardiner recording finally came out, Polygram promoted it aggressively. Gramophone made it the cover story, with Sir John (or is it Sir Elliot) on the cover, a special write-up in the front, and a completely uncritical review by Stanley Sadie in the opera section. In consideration no doubt, Polygram purchased the glossy inside front cover of the magazine to feature the set. Goldberg Magazine later reported that six of 10 European music review magazines had given the Gardiner Agrippina their highest possible ratings.
Not surprisingly, the commercial classical music magazines got it wrong. Although Gardiner's recording surpasses McGegan's in a few respects, overall, the Harmonia Mundi set is the better of the two.
Both recordings are essentially complete. The only cut that I have detected is the omission by McGegan of the ballet music at the end of Act III, probably because no dancers were engaged for the Göttingen production. The final chorus was moved from before to after Giunone's aria to end the opera. The ballet music does not appear in the HG edition of Agrippina.
The Philips recording sounds constricted in comparison with the lively Harmonia Mundi recording, particularly in orchestral movements. The Harmonia Mundi recording seems to have a wider sound stage, and consequently sounds more like an actual performance.
The Harmonia Mundi version is also better conducted by McGegan. His tempos are brisk, and he has followed Handel's original orchestration. Gardiner takes some movements at a painfully slow pace. Allowing for the extra 3:16 of ballet music performed by Gardiner, his recording is 6:46 longer than McGegan's. In addition, Gardiner adds non-historical organ continuo to many arias, which detracts from the performance, in my opinion. Unfortunately, he is not alone among "authentic" conductors in reorchestrating Handel operas, as the same thing has been done by Robert King, William Christie, René Jacobs and others. At least this recording was made before the emergence of the strumming guitar fad.
Neither recording is well cast. The only truly outstanding performance on the Harmonia Mundi set is delivered by Gloria Banditelli as Giunone, who has but one (spectacular) aria. Two singers stand out on the Philips recording -- Michael Chance as Ottone and Alistair Miles as Claudio, and I would recommend buying the Philips set to hear their arias if for no other reason. Drew Minter sings Ottone quite well on Harmonia Mundi, but Chance simply is best of the five falsettists on the two sets. Nicholas Isherwood on Harmonia Mundi lacks the strength in the lower range required for Claudio's challenging arias, written for the great bass, Carli.
The Agrippina and Poppea on Harmonia Mundi (Sally Bradshaw and Lisa Saffer respectively) easily surpass those on Philips (Della Jones and Donna Brown). The latter, Brown in particular, have a modern operatic style that clashes with the early instruments. Nerone is seriously miscast on both recordings. On Harmonia Mundi, his beautiful sicilianos suffer under the heavy vibrato of Wendy Hill, and on Philips, Derek Lee Ragin strains at the upper limits of his falsetto range in the soprano castrato part. The minor castrato part of Narcisso is sung adequately on both recordings, by Ralf Popken on Harmonia Mundi and by Jonathan Peter Kenny on Philips.
Since Agrippina was composed for Venice, there was of course no original English version of the wordbook. Harmonia Mundi and Philips commissioned independent English translations, of which the poetic translation by Anne Ridler for Harmonia Mundi is clearly superior. Harmonia Mundi reproduces the Argumento from the original wordbook, but Philips does not. For a translation of the Argumento, see the chapter on Agrippina in Dean and Knapp, Handel's Operas, 1706-1726 (Oxford University Press). In addition, the Harmonia Mundi booklet includes photos of the Göttingen stage production. The fine costumes, by Bonnie Krueger, were brought to New York for a student production in 1996. Philips does not furnish total times for its three CDS. They are: Disc 1: 74:37; Disc 2: 73:29; Disk 3: 68:49.
Thus, in conclusion, I prefer McGegan's performance. Another recording with a more consistent cast of early music singers would be welcome.