In May 2020 I wrote a post An opera and some history, about the opera L’Ottavia restituita al Trono by Domenico Scarlatti. When I was looking for information about this opera, I came across the opera Agrippina by Handel. Handel was born in1685, in the same year as Scarlatti, and he composed this opera in 1709 while he was staying in Italy. It was a huge success, got into oblivion later, but is now considered one of Handel’s major operas.
Agrippina (AD 15 – 59) was the wife of Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC –AD 54) and mother (from an earlier marriage) of emperor Nero (AD 37 – 68). Claudius died by poisoning, with probably his wife Agrippina as the instigator. Nero became the next emperor AD 54, 17 year old. At that time he was married to Octavia (AD 39 or 40 – 62), but the marriage was an unhappy one and soon he got mistresses. One of them was Poppaea (AD 30 – 65), married to his friend Otho (AD 32 – 69) who would become emperor after Nero’s suicide.
Probably everybody knows about the reputation of Nero. He killed his mother Agrippina AD 59 (22 yo) and a few years later he divorced Octavia and got her killed AD 62 (25 yo). He forced Otho to divorce Poppaea and exiled him to Lusitania (present day ~ Portugal). He married Poppaea AD 62. When se was pregnant AD 65, he caused her death.
It was a tumultuous period in the Roman Empire.
The Italian composer Monteverdi created in 1643 the opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppaea). Nero, Poppaea, Octavia and Otho are the main characters in his opera. The libretto uses the historical facts reasonably well, although with some artistic freedom. Otho loves Poppaea, but she prefers Nero and Nero prefers her above his wife Octavia. The opera ends with Otho and Octavia being exiled and Nero marrying Poppaea.
Scarlatti twists the historical facts. In his opera. Octavia has been exiled, but comes back to Rome, disguised as a shepherdess, to take revenge on Poppaea. Because the Roman people support her (historically true), Nero finally accepts Octavia back, although he still loves Poppaea. Otho doesn’t appear in this opera.
In Agrippina the main characters are Agrippina, Nero, Claudius, Otho and Poppaea. In the libretto of this opera the historical facts are distorted beyond recognition and I find it surprising that in the reviews of this opera hardly any attention is paid to the discrepancies.
The opera starts with Agrippina receiving the news that Claudius has drowned in a storm while at sea. Immediately she starts plotting to have her son Nero as the next emperor. She tells him: . “del quinto lustro oggi al confin sei giunto” which literally translates as “you have reached the border of your fifth lustrum today“. It took me some time to decipher this, the start of your fifth lustrum is when you turn 20. As Nero was born on 15 December AD 37, this gives an exact date of this conversation between Agrippina and Nero, 15 December AD 57.
Why do I pay so much attention to dates? Well, Claudius died AD 54 (possibly poisoned by Agrippina) and Nero was already Roman emperor from that time on. His friend (!) Otho was actually married to Poppaea at that time, she divorced him AD 58 only. Nero himself is still married to Octavia and divorced her AD 59.
So the story of the opera is completely fake. Keep that in mind when you read the following synopsis.
After receiving the news about the death of Claudius, Agrippina starts her scheming by asking Pallas and Narcissus to support Nero. In the opera they are both in love with Agrippina and provide the comic relief in the story. Historically, they were important figures in Claudius’ court. Pallas and Agrippina may have been lovers, but Narcissus was very loyal to Claudius and was murdered in AD 54, at about the same time as Claudius. Another fake element in the opera.
When Nero is about to be crowned emperor, Lesbus, a servant of Claudius enters and announces that Claudius did not drown, but was rescued by Otho, the commander of the army. Big commotion. Otho enters and tells that Claudius in gratitude will resign and make him the new emperor Privately he tells Agrippina that his love for Poppaea is more important for him than becoming emperor.
This gives Agrippina the opportunity for another plot. She knows that both Claudius and Nero are in love with Poppaea and tells Poppaea that Otho has promised Claudius that he will leave Poppaea to him, if he can become emperor. .Of course Poppaea is upset. Agrippina advises her to tell Claudius that Otho has forbidder her to see him, hoping to make the emperor so angry that he will take back his promise to Otho
When Poppaea meets Claudius she does as suggested by Agrippina. Claudius is furious and when he meets the others, he is full of praise, but calls Otho suddenly a traitor. Agrippina, Poppaea, everybody deserts Otho after this. Left alone he sings a lament, one of the most beautiful arias composed by Handel. Listen to Voi che udite il mio lamento, sung by countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński.
Poppaea, can not really believe that Otho has forsaken her for the throne and meets him in a garden. Soon it becomes clear that Agrippina has been plotting and Poppaea wants to take revenge. She asks Otho to come to her rooms later, Lesbus enters to tell her that Claudius wants to visit her in her rooms, next Nero meets her, she also invites him to her rooms.
Follows a hilarious scene in Poppaea’s rooms. First Otto arrives, she asks him to hide. Next comes Nero, also asked to hide, When finally Claudius has arrived, she tells him that it was actually Nero and not Otho who told her she should not meet Claudius. He can not believe her, but is convinced when she calls Nero out of his hiding.
Claudius is now confused who is lying and who is speaking the truth. He asks everybody to tell their story.. When Poppaea tells that Nero was in her rooms, he takes a decision, Nero will marry Poppaea and he will keep his promise that Otho will become emperor! Everybody unhappy 😉 When Otho refuses the crown, he reverses his decision: Otho can marry Poppaea and Nero will become emperor. Everybody happy.
All is well that ends well
In this synopsis I have omitted many details of the various subplots. As this review says: The plot of Agrippina is convoluted, even by operatic standards. I found it very informative to read the libretto (English translation). Before I mention the various YouTube recordings of Agrippina, a few comments about the libretto.
- The libretto contains a huge amount of recitatives. The text file contains ~ 3000 lines, of which ~ 2400 are recitative. All recordings I have watched skip parts of the recitative here and there.
- This opera has an unusual large number of “asides”, speech of a character, meant for the audience, not for the other persons on stage. Agrippina has 108 of them, they are an essential part of the story.
I have found many video recordings of Agrippina on YouTube, in this blog I will mention a few of them. I will give the link, a few screenshots and some comments.
I will start with the most recent one, a Swedish production, premiered in January 2023 and only visible on YouTube until July 2023.
It is the most authentic prodcution I have found. The opera is performed in a theater that dates back to the 18th century. The men are dressed in Roman togas, the ladies in period dresses.An empty stage, no props, hardly any action. Here are a few screenshots
The opening scene of the opera, Agrippina has geven Nero the letter about Claudius’ death.
Claudius praises the others but calls Otho a traitor. Notice that Otho is played by a mezzo-soprano (a trouser role). Actually it follows the premiere in 1709, where Nero and Narcissus were sung by castrati, but Otho by a mezzo.
Poppaea takes her revenge. Nero, thinking that Cl;audius has left, jumps out of his hiding
The final scene. In the original libretto the goddess Juno appears at the end and gives the love couple her blessing. Modern productions skip this finale
I liked this recording very much, although some of you may find it too static. Here is another extreme, a 2016 production by Robert Carsen, a famous opera director. Full of action, with many extras (non-singing actors). Personally I think this production is way over the top and distorts the essence of the libretto.
The opening scene. Nero, still in pyamas is watchting TV before Agrippina gives him the letter.
Agrippina asks Pallas and Narcissus , both in love with her, to support Nero. Later she will reward them. A grotesque mise-en-scene. Left Pallas, right Narcissus.
When Claudius arrives, video cameras record him. He praises everybody, but calls Otho a traitor
In the libretto Poppaea meets Otho and later Nero in a garden (“with a fountain”).. Carsen changes the garden to a fitness club with a pool. Hilarious but also ridiculous. Left Poppaea feigning to sleep when Otho enters. Right Nero jumps out of the pool.
The libretto places the next scene in Agrippina’s rooms, where she meets Pallas, Narcissus and Claudius and still tries to promote her son Nero. In this production the action takes place in the same fitness club, which makes no sense at all. Agrippina meets Pallas, gets a massage from Narcissus and his friends and convinces Claudius that Neo should become emperor.
Poppaea’s room. Nero has been hiding behind the sofa, when he thinks that Claudius has left, he jumps up and mistakenly tries to make love with Claudius.
The final scene of the opera, added by Carsen. Nero is laughing hysterically, while both Agrippina amd Poppaea have been killed. No comment 😉
After this extravaganza it is a relief to watch the 2018 production by Ars Lyrica Houston, my favourite. A timeless rendition, no military uniforms, no smartphones, it doesn’t matter that Agrippina is white and Nero black, there is no suggestion of an incestuous relationship between mother and son, Agrippina has only one wish, to make her son emperor.
The opening scene, Nero reads the letter that Claudius drowned.
Lesbus announces that Claudis is alive and Otho shockes the others when he telss that as a reward he will be the new emperor.
Agrippina lies to Poppaea that Otho leaves her to Claudius and advises her to make Claudius jelaous
Agrippina’s plot works well. Claudius praises everybody but calls Otho a traitor. After all the others despise him, he sings his heartbreaking lament. Click here to listen.
Soon the plot becomes clear and Poppaea is planning revenge, She invites Otho, Nero and Claudius to her rooms. Left: the plot becomses clear. Right: : Poppaea invites Nero to her rooms
Agrippina manages to get a promise from Claudius that Nero will become emperor. Claudius agrees, is actually in a hurry to visit POppaea,
WIth Nero hiding in her rooms, Poppaea explains to Claudius that it was Nero and not Otho who told her not to meet him. Claudius finds this difficult to belief, but is convinced when Nero comes out of hiding, half undressed.
The final scene. First Claudius decides that Nero will marry Poppaea and Otho will become emperor, but he reverses his judgement when everbody is unhappy.
Compare this production with the vulgarity of Carsen! The supporting role of Lesbus is played brillianly. Agrippina not only sings well, it is also a pleasure to see her facial expressions. The many asides fit well in this production. That Poppaea and Otho are slightly drunk when they reconcile is aristice freedom of the director. Really my favorite Agrippina
I will show the other YouTube videos in less detail, in chronological order.
With Jarousky as Nero. Period costumes and funny wigs. Not convincing. Nero reads the letter (left) and Otho is called a traitor by Claudius.(right)
All producers like to give a presonal touch to Handel’s opera: “This is MY Agrippina”. Here is the version of Jan Vriend. Nero is sung by a tenor and Otho by a bariton. Two screenshots, one that Nero reads the letter, the other one that Otho is called a traitor by Claudius. Interesting staging ;-).
Another version, by Hernan Schvartzman. Lots of semi-nudity. A bit weird. The relation between Agrippina and Nero is more than is normal between mother and son. Left : Nero has read the letter. Right: Otho is called a traitor.
I found this production so weird that it deserves an extra screenshot. Claudius is furious after he finds Nero in Poppawa’s room. Why Nero is having angel wings escapes me. The other half-naked boy with angel wings is Amor. Mind you , here is a very positive review of this production. “De gustibus non est disputandum!”
The stage in this modernist production is a theater hall. Maybe original but not functional. Left: Agrippina hands an ipad(!) to Nero. Right: Claudius calls Otho a traitor
Part of the action takes place underneath (!) the theater hall. Here Nero is litterally exposed to Claudius in Poppaea’s room. Another example of a producer who wants to leave his personal mark on the opera.
Nero is a punker here and the relation between him and Agrippina is rather incestuous. A miscasting, in my opinion. The rotating installation on stage is not functional. Left: Nero and Agrippina. Right: After Claudius has called Otho a traitor, Pallas and Narcissos physically attack Otho. Ridiculous
This Metropolitan Opera production is no longer availble on YouTube, only a trailer. Military uniforms, Nero is played by a mezzo in a trouser role and sniffs cocaine. Many extra actors. If you just forget about the original opera, it is an interesting modernist version..
I started this blog about four months ago. Of course I have not been working on it daily, and often I just was listening to the various YouTube versions. I have not counted the number of “Agrippina” hours, but it must have been a lot. Still the music is not boring at all.
If you disagree with my critical remarks, please leave a comment.