Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 6th of April 2014 at 6.03 - 9.45 pm
Sunday 23rd of December 2012 at 3.03 - 6.40 pm
HANDEL: Agrippina, an opera in three acts
Agrippina..................... Alexandrina Pendatchanska
Nerone......................... Jennifer Rivera
Poppea......................... Sunhae Im
Ottone.......................... Bejun Mehta
Claudio........................ Marcos Fink
Pallante........................ Neal Davies
Narciso......................... Dominique Visse
Lesbo........................... Daniel Schmutzhard
Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik/René Jacobs
(Harmonia Mundi HMC 90 2088.90)
2012 BBC Music Magazine Opera Award
Italian opera of Handel (his second) was first performed in Venice on
the 26th of December 1709, and that must be why it has been programmed
for broadcast at Christmas (2012). GFH was aged 24, and he composed it
in three weeks, but he used material that was old (of his own work) and
borrowed (from other composers). It was greeted rapturously and had 27
A glance at the list of characters brings up
Nerone, otherwise known as Nero; Agrippina is his mother, who is
scheming to get him on the imperial throne of Rome; Claudio is Emperor
Claudius I (otherwise I, Claudius, as Robert Graves said when he
chronicled his reign in a long novel).
Agrippina is styled as a drama per musica (a music drama) and an opera seria, a serious opera, though its irony makes it a comic opera.
A GRIPPING ROMAN OPERA
AGRIPPINA Georg Friedrich Haendel (1709)
Haendel moved from Hamburg in Germany to Florence in Italy, and composed RODRIGO in 1707; then he went to Venice, and there AGRIPPINA was created.
In Roman history Agrippina was the fourth wife of the Emperor Claudius, and sister of his predecessor Caligula, and, even more significantly and sinsterly, she was the mother of Nero (in an earlier marriage); Nero was the Caesar who followed Claudius. The main theme of the plot (indeed!) of this drama is Agrippina’s scheming to set Nero on the imperial throne. Naturally, this thread is woven into a rich purple garment with recitatives, and embellished with florid arias. The style, however, is like purple prose, and it makes us laugh, but that is what Handel intended. The two centerpieces on the stage (of one of the video versions, from Schwetzingen) are a golden throne and a scarlet bed, and all the intrigues are about who will occupy each.
PART 1 (77 m)
The news in Rome is that Emperor Claudius has perished in a storm at sea.
Agrippina begins her scheming. She offers the throne to Nero, and he lets himself be persuaded, and he sings so. The affection he shows his mother is more than filial!
Agrippina seductively inveigles her two freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, to go to the Senate and gain their agreement to making Nero the new ruler of Rome.
Consequently Nero starts ingratiating himself with the people.
The coronation ceremony is interrupted by Lesbus, the servant of Claudius:
The Emperor lives! He has been saved by Otho, the commander of the army.
Otho himself declares that Claudius has rewarded him with the throne.
Great consternation! Agrippina is thwarted, but Otho reveals to her secretly that he loves Poppea more than the throne; he is led to believe he can have both.
Agrippina knows that Claudius also loves Poppea (not to mention Nero, too) and she sees a new route to take.
Agrippina goes to Poppea, and the falsehood is imparted that Claudius has agreed to give Otho the kingship in exchange for Poppea.
Claudius pays an amorous visit to Poppea’s boudoir (where the scarlet bed is) before his return to Rome is official; he hears the untruth about Otho, and believes.
Agrippina consoles Poppea, amid a great show of love and leg, deceitfully declaring that their intimate friendship will never be broken by deception.
Pallas and Narcissus have realized that Agrippina has tricked them, and they will not be helping her again.
Claudius is about to make a grand entrance; the plotters are waiting to greet him.
Otho is anxious about his accession to the throne (rightly so, as it turns out here, but history records that after Nero’s death Otho had a brief reign).
Claudius enters in triumph, with two German prisoners.
Agrippina, Nero, and Poppea (again) receive his blessing; but when Otho presents himself to receive his reward for saving Caesar’s life, Claudius denounces him as a traitor, but will not take his life, under the circumstances.
Otho is distraught and looks to the others for support, but they all reject him.
(Get a grip on yourself, don’t come any nearer, your eyes are popping. Is that what they say to him? Poppea is having doubts, though.)
Act 3 Poor Otho (Ottone) has been shunned by everyone: Claudius Caesar (whose life he saved and who promised him the reward of kingship), Agrippina the royal consort (who has been secretly scheming against Otho), Nero the crown prince (who is Otho’s rival for the throne), and noble Poppea (who is being amorously pursued by everyone on the stage, apparently including Agrippina, in this production!). One of the longest kisses you will ever see in opera is shared here by Agrippina and her son Nero.
Poppea realizes that she does love Otho, and she starts plotting to save him from the wrath of Claudius. She invites all three of her lovers to her room, where the red bed is.
First she puts Otho into a hiding place where he is to listen to what is said; he will not like what he hears, but the pain of the moment will yield to contentment.
Next she hides Nero away, when he comes to express his ardour to her.
Then Claudius arrives, and Poppea struggles to make him accept that it was Nero, not Otho, who had urged her to reject Claudius as her lover. To prove this, she asks Claudius to pretend to leave, but stay and listen.
Nero comes out and resumes his ardent wooing, whereupon Claudius pounces and dismisses him.
When Claudius departs, Poppea brings Otho out of hiding, and then they play hide and seek under the covers on the red bed.
At the palace, Nero tells Agrippina that he is willing to forego love for power.
However, Claudius has also learned of Agrippina’s original plot, and that Nero was placed on the throne while he was away in Germany. Claudius accuses her of treachery, but she manages to convince him that her efforts were actually intended to safeguard the throne for Claudius himself.
Nevertheless, the Emperor declares that Nero shall marry Poppea, and Otho shall be the new ruler. General dissatisfaction ensues; Nero’s complaint is that this is a double punishment for him, losing an empire and merely getting a wife. So Claudius gives the throne to Nero, and the bride (she of the red bed) to Otho. Agrippina shall have a new city in Germany named after her, and Otho shall build it.
Finally, the goddess Juno is supposed to descend to pronounce a blessing, but we are left admiring Agrippina instead.
Coincidentally, today (5/6/2013) I attended Vivien Howan’s lecture on Claudius, discussing whether he really was a fool, controlled by freedmen and wives. Agrippina was his fourth spouse, and she eventually poisoned him. He was a scholar who wrote history treatises (which have not survived); and he reigned from 41 to 54 CE.