Opera seria in 3 acts
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Libretto: Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani
First performed: Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, Venice, 26 December 1709
For many people, Handel is Baroque opera: musical and scenic spectaculars based on classical myth, medieval romance, or history, with castrati singing elaborate, highly ornamented da capo (A-B-A) arias.
Haydn hailed him as “the master of us all”, and Beethoven as “the greatest composer that ever lived”, while the Messiah is as much a Christmas staple as Dickens and pudding.
Handel’s operas, most written for London from 1711, were little known on the continent outside his native Saxony. After his death in 1759, they were neglected for nearly two centuries.
Musicians started to rediscover them in the 1920s, while great singers – Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, Yvonne Kenny, Ewa Podleś, Cecilia Bartoli, Philippe Jaroussky, and Max Emanuel Cenčić – made them popular with audiences worldwide. (In the name of authenticity, the HIP enthusiasts should logically bring back castrati – but, as the old joke has it, do they have the balls?)
I’d loved individual Handel arias, but worried they wouldn’t add up to a satisfying opera. Neither the Janet Baker Julius Caesar (in English) nor a staged oratorio had convinced me of his genius. The witty but usually wrong Denis Forman, too, was sniffy about opera seria:
In the days of orthodox opera seria, each of the top singers had four arias. When they had sung their aria they disappeared. This must have given the scriptwriter quite a few problems in trying to keep the momentum of the story going along, but the truth is that there was no momentum and precious little interest in the story. The compulsory exits of the lead singers demonstrate that the whole elaborate apparatus of courtly opera was designed pretty well solely to show off the singers and everything else, libretto, recitatif, scenery etc., was incidental. Wagner was a long way off.
Agrippina would make an excellent case for the defence.
It was Handel’s sixth opera, performed in the Venetian 1709 carnival season, with a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, priest, theatrical impresario, and viceroy of Naples.
Modern musicologists see Agrippina as Handel’s first masterpiece. With it, Kaminski argued, Handel established himself as the finest musical dramatist between Monteverdi and Mozart. It is a witty, cynical work, in the tradition of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea: imperial Roman powerplay as sex farce – Carry On Clavdivs.
Grimaldi’s libretto is “one of the finest operatic texts Handel ever set … a wickedly satirical comedy of sex, politics and female ambition, in which hardly a single character escapes Grimani’s barbed pen” (Keates), “a politico-erotic intrigue such as only a prince of the Church could devise” (Kaminski).
The opera belongs to the ruthless Agrippina, sister and lover, niece and wife, and mother and lover to Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Handel’s opera shows her plotting to place her son Nero (still a teenager) on the throne, and rule through him, manipulating all around her.
Tacitus presents Agrippina as a monster of “dictatorial, feminine excess of ambition”.
From the moment [of her marriage to Claudius] the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman – and not a woman like Messalina who toyed with sexual affairs to satisfy her appetites. This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism. In public, Agrippina was austere and often arrogant. Her private life was chaste – unless power was to be gained. Her passion to acquire money was unbounded. She wanted it as a stepping-stone to supreme power.
Agrippina poisoned Claudius, possibly with mushrooms – “the food of the gods,” Nero later joked – and the Senate and soldiers acclaimed her 16-year-old son emperor. She made her determination to rule clear from the start.
“On the day of [Nero’s] accession,” Suetonius records, “the password he gave to the military tribune on duty was ‘The Best of Mothers’, and she and he often rode out together through the streets in her litter.” (Committing incest every time; “the state of his clothes when he emerged proved it”.)
Nero soon balked at his mother’s domination, and the pair fell out. He tried to force her to retire to Rhodes; deprived her of honour and power; expelled her from the Palatine; and sent people to pester her with lawsuits, or disturb her with jeers and catcalls. “In the end her threats and violent behaviour terrified him into deciding that she must die.”
Tacitus, in one of his most dramatic passages, tells how Nero tried to kill her in a capsizing ship, then sent guards to murder her.
As the lieutenant was drawing his sword to finish her off, she cried out: ‘Strike here!’ – pointing to her womb. Blow after blow fell, and she died… This was the end which Agrippina had anticipated for years. The prospect had not daunted her. When she asked astrologers about Nero, they had answered that he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was, ‘Let him kill me – provided he becomes emperor!’
Agrippina may well also be the most tuneful opera since … well, since opera began, actually. The music throughout (recycling earlier material, as was Handel’s wont) is melodic and inventive; we could list every other number, but that would be tedious. The two most famous arias belong to Agrippina: the show-stopping “Pensieri, voi mi tormenate”, powerfully blending aria and recitative, and the irresistible “Ogni vento ch’al porto lo spinga”.
If contemporary French tragédie lyrique remains mured in the mid-1600s, the idiom is often close to Mozart or Rossini. The sex kitten Poppea’s arias, charming yet guileful, remind us of Susanna or Zerlina, while the genially lecherous old Claudius is an ancestor of Mustafà.
What a wonderful thing recitativo secco is, too! It’s theatrically immediate – dynamic and dramatic, fast and fluid, full of pace and punch. The joy of secc’s! (Or has a two-month diet of Lully and his imitators addled my wits?)
The German composer, born in Halle, wrote his first four operas (now lost) for the Hamburg opera house, where he was violinist and harpsichordist. At 21, on the advice of Ferdinando de’ Medici, Prince of Tuscany, he travelled to Italy, reaching Florence in 1706, and Rome by January 1707. (Gluck and Meyerbeer would later make similar musical pilgrimages to Italy; Wagner, in his youth, also dreamt of going to Italy and learning to write opera.)
Kaminski says that he absorbed the highest accomplishments of Italian music to the point where he could surpass them in religious music (Dixit Dominus, 1707), oratorio (Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, 1707; La Risurezzione, 1708), and cantata (Aci, Galatea e Poliferno, 1708).
His first Italian opera, Vincer se stesso è la maggior vittoria (Rodrig(o) (Florence, 1707), was a moderate success, earning the composer 100 sequins and a service of plate. The work, in Keates’ opinion, shows Handel’s growing mastery of the da capo aria, but suffers from nervously handled recitative and prolix declamatory paragraphs.
Agrippina, though, was a smash hit, reaching 27 performances (a lot for the time). “The audience,” Handel’s biographer John Mainwaring wrote, “was so enchanted with this performance that a stranger who should have seen the manner in which they were affected, would have imagined they were all distracted. The theatre, at almost every pause, resounde with shouts and acclamations of viva il caro Sassone and other expressions of approbation too extravagant to be mentioned. They were thunderstruck with the gravity and sublimity of his style, for they had never known till then all the powers of harmony and modulation so closely arranged and forcibly combined.”
Performances in Naples (1713), Hamburg (1718, 1722), Vienna (1719) followed – then it was not heard of again until performed in Handel’s birthplace, Halle, in 1943.
The Met will stage Agrippina in its 2019/20 season, with Joyce di Donato in the title role.
We’ll be bringing you more Handel – and other opera seria – over the next few months.
Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Jennifer Rivera, Sunhae Im, Bejun Mehta, Marcos Fink, Neal Davies, Dominique Visse, and Daniel Schmutzhard, with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, conducted by René Jacobs, Harmonia Mundi, 2011.
- Edward Blakeman, The Faber Pocket Guide to Handel, Faber & Faber, 2009
- Denis Forman, The Good Opera Guide: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, 2003
- Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and His Music, Pimlico, rev. 2008