Göttingen this year produced a choice collection of treats, with the main feature being Handel’s opera Agrippina, along with two oratorios and two major vocal recitals augmented with several smaller offerings. The linking theme was Heldinnen!? – note the punctuation marks – and the proceedings highlighted various female roles, with varying definitions of just what a heroine might be. The continued endeavours of artistic director Laurence Cummings and intendant Tobias Wolff continue to bear luscious fruit, and the FestspielOrchester Göttingen has reached a summit of baroque perfection.

Göttingen Agrippina Ulrike Schneider-Agrippina_Jake Arditti - Nerone photo Theodoro_da_Silva

Handel’s first operatic masterpiece, Agrippina, can be seen largely as a romp, but there are certainly dark undercurrents at work. While not terribly historically accurate, one feels nonetheless it does capture something of the courtly machinations of the Julio-Claudians, certainly according to Suetonius and to a lesser extent Tacitus. The story explores the efforts of Agrippina – surely an anti-heroine – to get her son Nerone onto the throne, and the usual oedipal notes are invoked .

The setting of this production (at the Deutschestheater, 15 and 22 May, sung in Italian with German surtitles) by English tenor Laurence Dale barely gestures towards ancient Rome but takes place in a sort of generalised operaland, with a sparse setting enhanced by the clever use of scrims and mirrors (set design Tom Schenk), with a spartan but symbolically charged wooden throne. Costumes also adhere to no particular time nor place, but delineate the characters well. Agrippina herself appears mostly in regal black outfits with purple accents; for the aria “Pensieri”, in which she weighs up the dangers of her current schemes, and which can be construed as a nightmare, she appears in a nightie and an old woman’s wig of sparse white hair (a brave act for the singer Ulrike Schneider). A certain vulgarity in the production was enjoyed by some and deplored by others, but did no serious damage to the narrative.

Particularly amusing were Nerone’s two outfits, firstly an exaggeration of a schoolboy uniform in red, piped with gold, and secondly a similarly bright red pantaloon affair with ruffled top, and an even brighter red upstanding quiff, such that he resembled a demented cockatoo. Narciso and Pallante appeared in similar exaggerated outfits, the latter in a blue sparkly tutu affair with wide tulle train. Claudio was Elizabethan in doublet and hose, whereas Poppea wore a simple floor length white tunic. The efficacy of the costumes were illustrated by a Sunday matinée performance of a “family” Agrippina, which introduced some very young people to the opera in the Stadthalle (24 May). Compared by German children’s TV host Juri Tetzlaff, this provided a brief introduction to the characters, a sampling of their arias, a simplified summary of the plot and lots of audience interaction. The kids immediately got the point of the outfits, and how they represented the different characters.

Göttingen_Agrippina Ida Falk Winland-Poppea Ulrika Schneider - Agrippina photo Theodoro_da_Silva

It is really superfluous to say that the FestspielOrchester Göttingen (FOG) played superbly under Cummings’ direction; not only are they welded into a tight unit of musical cohesiveness, but their playing is HIP stylish and always in the service of the singers. The soloists were almost universally excellent both vocally and dramatically. Schneider’s Agrippina was a model of manipulative control, scheming and cajoling as the ultimate tiger mother; her firm mezzo-soprano explored the vocal nuances of the part if not quite within the usual baroque musical idiom. English countertenor Jake Arditti showed great promise in the role of Nerone, deploying quite a pretty tone and nice agility in his arias, with “Coll’ ardo” sung with black energy, and all the while looking an absolute pratt in his costumes. Ida Falk Winland was an entertaining and knowing Poppea, with a strong bright and well articulated soprano; countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Ottone displayed a wonderfully ripped body but his voice left something to be desired. The sheen has gone off it, and he seemed to dwell overly much in chest. In many ways the outstanding performer was João Fernandes as Claudius, whose interpretation would resonate with readers of Robert Graves, and also suggested a touch of Malvolio. Equipped not just with doublet and hose, but also knee ribbons and possibly the worst hair ever seen on an opera stage (a long greasy comb over), Fernandes limped, grimaced and evoked contempt from those around him, yet rose to the occasion at the end of the opera when asserting “Io di Roma il Giove sono”. It came as a real surprise to see him as his own handsome, charming self, as we did at the aforementioned family performance, an excellent introduction to the world of acting for the young ones. His handsome bass voice was at the service of his characterisation, but even as he made a joke of his low notes, it was clear that he had them, and with little effort. Owen Willetts (Narciso) and Ross Ramgobin (Pallante) both added to the fun in their respective rather silly parts.

Deborah (St Johannis-Kirche, 16 May) is not one of Handel’s more frequently performed works, while not being as obscure as Alexander Balus or Joseph and his Brethren, and like several of the oratorios, any actual action takes place around its peripheries. In this case, the title character,is more of a commentator than an active participant; the decisive battle between Israelites and Canaanites is fought between the second and third parts, and Jael’s nailing of Sisera’s head to the floor is recounted rather than seen. Nonetheless the music is sufficient to spur the narrative along, and the local Göttinger Barockorchester, under the direction of Bernd Eberhardt and augmented with members of the FOG, made the most of it, if going somewhat over the top volume-wise. Their continuo section was very tight, led by cellist Rachel Bader. Similarly, the Göttingerkammerchor, if not overly polished, certainly provided enthusiastic singing.

English soprano Anna Dennis has become a confident seasoned performer in what seems a relatively short period of time, and her assumption of Deborah was all one could wish. Her portrayal of the title role was dramatically commanding and beautifully sung, with powerful gleaming top notes and rapid coloratura, even if the latter was not quite always perfectly articulated. Jael and the Israelite woman were sung by German soprano Johanna Ness, whose pure bright voice harboured some minor intonation problems at first but steadied later, and whose English diction was a little muddy; her coloratura in “Our fears are now forever fled” was impressive, and “Tyrant now no more” was very joyously sung, one might say riveting. The alto role of Barak was sung by countertenor Leandro Marziotte who displayed a strong voice, a little woofy to begin with, but flowering into a nice burnished tone, with good English diction and phrasing. Tenor Clemens Löschmann was the unfortunate Sisera, performing smoothly with hints of squillo although his coloratura tended to fall off a bit. Abinoam and the chief priest of the Israelites and of Baal were all channelled through veteran bass Gotthold Schwarz, still possessing a firm, flexible and confident voice if sometimes a bit heavy on the vibrato. Overall, a fast-paced enjoyable performance.

Göttingen Agrippina Joao Fernades-Claudio photoTheodoro_da_Silva_

Somewhat better known these days is Theodora (Stadthalle, 23 May), composed rather later in Handel’s life, and said to be his favourite of his oratorios. For this performance, Cummings conducted the FOG – glorious, it almost goes without saying – and the NDR Chor, who also seem to be achieving a state of consistent excellence these days, including readily acceptable English diction. The concluding chorus of Part One, “Go gen’rous pious youth” was a miracle of balance between orchestra and chorus, and deeply moving.

This performance was graced by Carolyn Sampson, surely now in her prime, in the title role. Looking, it must be said, far too glamorous for a Christian martyr, she managed to impart intense feeling and vocal beauty into the part. Singing with her usual clear bright tone, excellent diction and pinpoint accuracy, she managed to inject just the right amount of vibrato into the longer held notes and displayed exquisite control over some of Theodora’s extended phrases. Supportive Christian Irene was sung by Susan Bickley, a seasoned and versatile mezzo soprano who brought clarity, brightness, finesse and accuracy if not exactly beauty to the part. Young English tenor Rupert Charlesworth impressed as Septimius, with strong firm tone, and brought an eloquent reading to the recitatives. Lisandro Abadie convincingly assumed the bass role of Valens, the Roman heavy, with good range and flexibility and perfect English diction, delivering “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire” with determination and relish. “Wide spread his name” was also a small delight, with excellent coloratura, conviction and resonance. The only drawback was Robin Blaze as Didymus. His voice is now in deplorable estate, cracking at least once in every aria, and, despite his amiable presence, it seems positively unkind to encounter him in such a substantial role now.

This year’s festival featured two major recitals by mezzo sopranos now at their peak, Sarah Connolly and Ann Hallenberg. The former’s concert was entitled Heroes and Heroines, a common range of parts for a mezzo. Featuring a substantial number of arias from Handel, there was also instrumental music from Élisabet Jacquet de la Guerre and Graun and an aria from M-A Charpentier’s Medée, an anti-heroine if ever there was one. The Handelian characters invoked included Serse, Ruggiero, Giulio Cesare and Ariodante and the single heroine in this category, the Queen of Sheba. This thoughtfully chosen program of generally familiar pieces highlighted Connolly’s strengths vocally and dramatically, and was accompanied by the excellent Cummings and the FOG. Connolly’s big rich voice was sumptuously displayed in the opening “Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fu”; her dramatic intensity on show in Charpentier’s “Quel prix de mon amour”; and “Stà nell’Ircana” was appropriately rousing and showed off Connolly’s well articulated and accurate coloratura. “Va tacito” was enhanced by stunning cadenzas in both the B section and the da capo, and “Scherza infida” and “Doppo notte were everything one would expect. A first encore of “Dido’s lament” showed another facet of Connolly’s repertoire, and “As with rosy steps the morn” was a perfect second encore. This was a scrupulously organised and presented recital, and if one had any reservations, it was that Connolly, warm and generous a performer as she is, yet remained firmly established behind the fourth wall.

Hallenberg, on the other hand, purveying a rather more obscure repertoire, totally ignored that barrier, with a performance that reached warmly and personally out to the audience (which of course might be just another kind of performing manifestation). This recital was entitled Agrippina mit Ann Hallenberg and Donna Leon, although the contributions of the two heroines in this case were not quite as equal in the execution as in the billing. On previous occasions, Leon’s role has been to read from her own work, but in this instance her role was to introduce us to the historical Agrippina, or Agrippinas, with some historical observations. Nonetheless, as on previous occastions, her presence on the stage served to attract a somewhat differently constituted audience to the Göttingen norm, indicated by a certain amount of clapping between movements and once during a cadenza.

The concert per se comprised material from Hallenberg’s recently released CD entitled Agrippina, featuring arias written for different historical Agrippinas by different composers, while of course including some of Handel’s own Agrippina. Hallenberg was accompanied by the same band as on the CD, Riccardo Minasi and Il pomo d’oro, and the result was electrifying. This is not to say that all these arias are equally excellent (Sammartinis’ “Deh, lasciami in pace” might be considered rather ordinary) but the execution was never less than excellent. Encores included the non-Agrippinic “Qual nave” from Radamisto and “Stà nell Ircana” from Alcina with a return to one of the Agrippinas in Telemann’s “Rembranza crudel” from Britannico.

Hallenberg’s voice is powerful, clear and beautiful in tone, completely even across its considerable range, with lovely Italian diction. Her decorations are never less than spectacular, clearly articulated and inexorably accurate. Her stage persona embraces the audience, and seems to speak to each individual in a personal sphere of music, not unlike the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and also like that great singer, she seems to sing out of the music as well as embody it. She also seems never to be in any haste, but proceeding at her own speed while the music coalesces around her. Brian Robbins in another place has drawn attention to a specific track on the CD, “Mi paventi il figlio indegno” from Graun’s Britannico, as a recording for the ages. To hear this sung live, with even more dazzling effect, was a total breathtaking tour de force and never-to-be-forgotten experience.

4 stars

Sandra Bowdler