'Agrippina,' Handel's Unlikely Comedy In his first, true operatic masterpiece, Handel creates an odd-ball comedy filled with scheming characters from ancient Rome. Read the story and hear excerpts from the site of the opera's premiere, in 1710.

'Agrippina,' Handel's Unlikely Comedy

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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

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Michele Crosera/Teatro la Fenice

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.

'Nero's Decision'

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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."

'Agrippina's Aria'

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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.

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