The final opera Handel wrote and produced for his time in Italy, Agrippina is a delicious piece depicting the eponymous character’s machinations to see her son Nero crowned Roman Emperor. Along the way, Agrippina strings along not just one but three lovers, playing them off each other in order to see her plans into fruition.

This eagerly awaited new release from Erato sees Joyce DiDonato lay down her acclaimed interpretation of the role on disc, and she’s surrounded by a cast of equally esteemed Handelians, with her usual collaborators Maxim Emelyanychev and his Il Pomo d’Oro on hand. The mezzo can be hard to write about, because you find yourself constantly reaching for the same superlatives. It’s hard not to do the same here – her singing is simply magnificent, technically brilliant and expressive without ever being mannered or laborious. In other words, you can’t detect the work, only Agrippina and her fearsome drive to wrest power for herself and her son. DiDonato’s interpretation sets a new standard, and her Pensiere, Voi Mi Tormentate blistering in its self-doubt and furious determination.

As Nerone, countertenor Franco Fagioli is unafraid of emphasising the metallic qualities of his bright instrument to communicate the character’s insecurity and grasping nature. He overdoes it sometimes, but there’s no denying his commitment. While he doesn’t tackle the music as imaginatively as DiDonato, his precision and power aren’t to be sniffed at, on ample display in his Act 3 showpiece Come numbe.

Jakub Józef Orliński provides great psychological insight as Ottone, one of the only decent characters in the opera. He brings welcome lyrical warmth and sincerity to the role, impressing in his lament Voi che udite mio lament. As his beloved Poppea, soprano Elsa Benoit is sweetness personified, fresh of tone and infinitely tender. Neither of them are cloying in their goodness, but necessary breaths of fresh air in this bleak piece.

As the ineffectual Claudio, husband to Agrippina, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni imbues the role with a finely judged dignity, singing with authority and pathos. Andrea Mastroni’s Pallante and Carlo Vistoli’s Narciso both provide fine support, while Marie-Nicole Lemieux is luxury casting as Giunone.

As ever, Il Pomo d’Oro play with real spirit and confidence, Emelyanychev’s direction full of interpretative insight. Definitely recommended.

Composer: Handel
Work: Agrippina
Performers: Joyce Didonato ms, Franco Fagioli ct, Jakub Józef Orliński ct, Il Pomo d’Oro/Maxim Emelyanychev
Label: Erato 9029533658