'Agrippina,' Handel's Unlikely Comedy

Ann Hallenberg and Xavier Sabata star in Handel's 'Agrippina' i i

Agrippina (Ann Hallenberg) manipulates everyone around her, including Ottone (Xavier Sabata), in the Teatro La Fenice production of Handel's Agrippina. Michele Crosera/Teatro la Fenice hide caption

itoggle caption Michele Crosera/Teatro la Fenice
Ann Hallenberg and Xavier Sabata star in Handel's 'Agrippina'

Agrippina (Ann Hallenberg) manipulates everyone around her, including Ottone (Xavier Sabata), in the Teatro La Fenice production of Handel's Agrippina.

Michele Crosera/Teatro la Fenice

THE HIT SINGLE

Handel gave the character Nero (countertenor Florin Cezar Ouatu) some of the opera's most brilliant and treacherous music. In the rapid fire aria "Come nube," in act three, he decides to dump Poppea, and concentrate on becoming Rome's next emperor.

THE B SIDE

As act two ends, with Agrippina (mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg) confident that her schemes are sound and that smooth sailing lies ahead, she sings the gently lilting aria, "Ogni vento" -- "Every wind."

George Frideric Handel spent much of his long and successful operatic career writing Italian operas for eager, English audiences in London. But that's not where he made his first splash in the opera house.

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and wrote his first operas in Hamburg. But at the time, Italy was the place for opera, and that's where Handel wound up. He started out in Florence, in 1707, where he wrote an opera called Rodrigo. Then he moved on to Venice where he came up with Agrippina, a sort of odd-ball comedy, widely regarded as his first, true operatic masterpiece.

A quick look at the cast of characters in Agrippina would suggest anything but a comic opera. The story is set in ancient Rome, and its lineup includes the emperor Claudius, along with the whole raft of plotters and schemers who surrounded him. Agrippina was Claudius' fourth wife. She was the sister of the infamous emperor Caligula, who preceded Claudius. Agrippina was also the mother of another emperor, Nero, now famous for his fireside fiddling. And Nero took the throne after Claudius was assassinated — in a poisoning for which many blame Agrippina herself.

Still, Handel took these familiar characters, with all their sinister baggage, and somehow created a lighthearted opera in which the constant skulduggery seems so over the top that it really can't be taken seriously. He also blessed it with some of his finest music, creating a fascinating, underlying tension that keeps the story compelling, yet never interferes with the opera's overall satirical impact.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Handel's Agrippina from the same city — and even the same theater! — where it was premiered in 1710. The production is by Venice's legendary opera company La Fenice, and comes to us from the historic Teatro Malibran.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Agrippina'

Although Handel's Agrippina is based on actual, historical figures, the story plays fast and loose with real, historical events. The librettist for the opera was Vincenzo Grimani, an ordained cardinal who was also an experienced diplomat and a student of the classics. He wrote one of the finest librettos that Handel ever set, helping to turn this story of nastiness and dirty dealings into a comic satire. He also gave it the requisite happy ending. For his part, Handel supplied an abundance of catchy tunes — the type which 18th-century audiences expected to be able to hum while leaving the opera house.

WHO'S WHO

Ann Hallenberg .............Agrippina

Lorenzo Ragazzo ........... Claudius

Florin Cezar Ouatu ................ Nero

Veronica Cangemi ........... Poppea

Xavier Sabata ...................... Ottone

Ugo Guagliardo ............... Pallante

Milena Storti ............. Narciso/Juno

Roberto Abbondanza ......... Lesbo

La Fenice Orchestra and Chorus
Fabio Biondi, conductor

Veronica Cangemi and Ann Hallenberg in 'Agrippina' i i

Agrippina (Ann Hallenberg, right) tricks Poppea (Veronica Cangemi) into plotting against her beloved Ottone. Michele Crosera/Teatro La Fenice hide caption

itoggle caption Michele Crosera/Teatro La Fenice
Veronica Cangemi and Ann Hallenberg in 'Agrippina'

Agrippina (Ann Hallenberg, right) tricks Poppea (Veronica Cangemi) into plotting against her beloved Ottone.

Michele Crosera/Teatro La Fenice

The three-act opera takes place in Rome, around 50 A.D. As ACT ONE begins, Agrippina, wife of the emperor Claudius, gets word that her husband has been killed at sea. But she's hardly distraught. Instead, she seizes the opportunity to advance her son Nero to the throne.

After advising Nero on how to become popular with the Roman public, Agrippina starts manipulating the people around her. First, she promises two different men — Pallante and Narcissus — that she'll marry them, as long as they throw their political support to Nero. So in the grand piazza, that's exactly what they do. But just as Nero is about to crown himself emperor, a troublesome messenger shows up, reporting that Claudius wasn't killed after all.

A soldier named Ottone tells the harrowing story, adding that Claudius promised to name Ottone the next emperor in exchange for saving his life. This certainly adds a wrinkle to Agrippina's plans. But Ottone tells Agrippina he'd be happy to forget about that promise, if only he can have the woman he loves, Poppea — who happens to be Claudius's mistress. Agrippina sees an opening. With the complexities mounting, the upshot is that Agrippina lies to everyone, stirs up their jealousy and urges them all to take revenge. When Claudius comes back, she even thwarts his attempted lovemaking with Poppea.

In ACT TWO, Pallante and Narcissus discover they've been had, and form an alliance. In a public ceremony, Claudius celebrates his return from battle. Ottone steps forward to claim his promised reward, but Claudius unexpectedly denounces him as a traitor. One by one, Ottone's friends turn their backs on him, leaving him alone and bewildered. Only Poppea takes pity on Ottone. All along, she's had a sneaking suspicion that Agrippina is behind all this, and when she finds out she's right, she decides to get even.

Meanwhile, Agrippina plots with Pallante to murder Ottone and Narcissus — and with Narcissus to murder Ottone and Pallante! She tells Claudius that Ottone wants revenge for his loss of the throne, and urges him to anoint Nero as his successor. Claudius is preoccupied with resuming his assignation with Poppea, so he absentmindedly agrees.

As ACT THREE opens, Poppea has a plan. One by one, she invites Ottone, Nero and Claudius into her room, while telling each man to hide and eavesdrop before the other comes in.

At this point, the intrigue gets so complex and confusing that it's best just to sit back and enjoy Handel's music. When all is said and done, Ottone swears eternal fidelity to Poppea; Claudius turns the tables on Agrippina, accusing her of treachery; and Agrippina provokes Claudius by revealing that Poppea has been fooling around with Ottone. Only Narcissus and Pallante somehow manage to keep themselves out of trouble.

Finally, as the principal characters are verbally sparring, Claudius suddenly announces that Nero won't be the next emperor after all. Instead, he decides to make Ottone his successor, and let Nero marry Poppea.

But nobody is happy with this turn of events. Nero even declares that having a new wife, but no empire, is a double punishment. So, equally out the blue, Claudius changes his mind. He says Poppea will marry Ottone instead of Nero, and Nero will become emperor. Finally, everyone seems satisfied. It seems the internal battles are over, and Rome is once again in stable hands — at least for now.

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