Event:Handel’s AGRIPPINA
Date:February 29, 2020, 12:55 pm
Run Time:4 hours 10 minutes
Ticket Info:Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for AGRIPPINAper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for AGRIPPINA • per student • $11.00 online



When Agrippina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudio, receives news of her husband’s death, she wastes no time in ensuring that Nerone, her son by a previous marriage, succeeds him. Prepared to go to any lengths to achieve her ends, she sends separately for Pallante and Narciso, of whose passion for her she is fully aware. She promises each of them in turn that she will reciprocate their love if they will proclaim Nerone as Claudio’s successor.

Her scheme is thwarted when Claudio’s servant Lesbo announces that the emperor’s life has been saved by Ottone, the commander of the army. When Ottone reaches the city, he declares that Claudio has rewarded his bravery by nominating him as his successor; but in a private conversation with Agrippina, he reveals that he loves Poppea more than the throne.

Agrippina now devises a fresh intrigue to secure the throne for Nerone. Aware that Claudio also desires Poppea, Agrippina tells Poppea that Ottone has betrayed her by yielding her to Claudio in exchange for the imperial throne. Agrippina suggests that, to avenge herself, Poppea must make Claudio jealous and convince him that Ottone, emboldened by his new status, has ordered Poppea to refuse Claudio and return to him: For this, the emperor will punish Ottone. When Claudio arrives, Poppea executes Agrippina’s plan.

Having discovered that Agrippina has deceived them, Pallante and Narciso decide to form an alliance. Ottone enters, apprehensive about the imminent public celebrations. The imperial family arrives, and when Ottone approaches the emperor, Claudio accuses him of treachery. To his increasing dismay, Ottone is shunned by Agrippina, Nerone, and Poppea.


Poppea begins to doubt Ottone’s guilt. Seeing him approach, she hides. When he sees her, she reveals to him what Agrippina told her. Ottone protests his innocence. Realizing that she has been a pawn in Agrippina’s plans, Poppea swears to be avenged and hatches a plot involving both Claudio and Nerone, who also desires her.

Ever ambitious, Agrippina has been plotting further to make Nerone emperor. First, she commands Pallante to murder Ottone and Narciso. Then, she asks Narciso to murder Ottone and Pallante. She tells Claudio that Ottone is seeking revenge on him for the loss of the succession and persuades him to suppress Ottone’s dissent by declaring Nerone as heir. Impatient to be with Poppea, Claudio agrees.

Poppea enacts her plan for revenge. She hides Ottone, telling him not to be jealous because of anything he overhears. Nerone arrives, eager to make love to Poppea, but she pretends that Agrippina is expected at any moment and he must therefore hide. Claudio enters, and Poppea complains that he does not truly love her. He reminds her of all that he has done for her, including Ottone’s punishment. At this, Poppea claims that he misunderstood her: It was Nerone, not Ottone, who constantly harassed her. Having hidden Claudio, Poppea calls to Nerone, who resumes his amorous pursuit of her; but Claudio interrupts and dismisses him. Poppea frees herself of Claudio on a pretext, and she and Ottone swear their eternal love.

Nerone recounts his disgrace to Agrippina and begs her to protect him from Claudio’s rage. Dismayed by all the treachery, Pallante and Narciso reveal Agrippina’s conspiracy to the emperor. When confronted by Claudio, Agrippina realizes that her schemes are now in jeopardy. She claims that she acted only in Rome’s best interests and accuses him of paying undue attention to Poppea. When Agrippina reveals that Ottone loves Poppea, Claudio lays the blame for his actions on Nerone, whom he commands to marry Poppea, and names Ottone as his successor. But Ottone renounces the throne in order to reclaim Poppea. Endorsing this exchange, Claudio nominates Nerone as his heir. Agrippina’s ambition for her son has finally come to fruition.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

For two centuries nobody paid attention to Handel’s operas. The opera seria format alternating recitativo secco (dry recitative, lightly accompanied) and arias da capo (in ABA structure) was dismissed as hopelessly rigid, the plots absurd, the results merely “concerts in costume.” The early music revival has changed all that. The greatest of these works (notably Giulio Cesare) are standard repertory, and even the more obscure ones are revived. Period performance practice for both voices and instruments, coupled with imaginative (and sometimes outrageous) stagings, has brought them to new life.

Agrippina (1709) is youthful Handel, composed for carnival season in Venice before he settled in London. It was enormously successful, played for 27 nights straight, and soon appeared in Naples, Hamburg, and Vienna, though without Handel’s participation. Its first modern revival was in 1943 in Handel’s home town, Halle.

The names are familiar from Roman history: Claudius, Nero, Poppea, in addition to the title character. But the opera seria designation is deceptive. Somewhat improbably, Agrippina is a comedy. Its heroes are decidedly unheroic. Scholars believe it was intended as political satire, the target being Pope Clement XI, rival of librettist Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani.

Handel composed the music in three weeks, borrowing even more heavily than usual from his own and other composers’ works. This was accepted practice then; nowadays, obsessed as we are with “intellectual property” (nice oxymoron, that), he would have wound up in court. And he reused some of Agrippina’s music in later stage works, notably Rinaldo and Acis and Galatea.

In that original Venetian production, the singers portraying Nero and Narcissus were castrati, the superstars of the time. We’re more squeamish today, and rely on female sopranos and male countertenors for our operatic highs. (Given modern gender fluidity and related medical practices, do you think a castrato revival is in the offing? I’ll take bets.)

Including revised versions and variants, there are about fifty operas in the Handel canon. Fifty. Five-zero. You can hear recordings of most of them on YouTube. I’ve listened more or less intently to a dozen. Thirty-six hours of Handel, and not a dull moment in the bunch.

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