Arias of Influence: How Agrippina Achieves Her Ambitions Through Music
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled Arias of Influence, as well as the audio selections from Agrippina. You will also need copies of the synopsis and colored pencils.
Art, History, English / Language Arts, Drama, Ethics
- To strengthen students’ comprehension of Agrippina’s characters and story
- To deepen students’ understanding of how composers can portray character through music
- To expand students’ knowledge of operatic forms (recitative, da capo aria, etc.)
- To extend students’ ability to describe, discuss, and depict music through verbal, visual, and dramatic expression
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).
How does an opera composer tell a story with music? For every scene or monologue in Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto (or script) for Agrippina, composer George Frideric Handel had to make choices about whether the music would keep the story moving or stop to focus on one idea or emotion. Throughout Agrippina, we hear scenes in which Handel’s music briskly propels the plot forward, with characters singing their dialogue in speech-like rhythms; we call the music in these sections recitative. In between these scenes of recitative, however, we hear extended meditations on a few lines of text, longer pieces in which a single character’s thoughts are stretched and heightened, the same words repeating on an ever-expanding melody; we call this an aria. This activity will introduce students to these classic techniques of operatic text-setting, focusing on a specific Baroque aria structure called the da capo aria. By completing this activity, students will gain an understanding of the traditional structure of the da capoaria (and its relationship to recitative) and develop insight into how Handel utilizes these structures in Agrippina to convey the personality and intentions of the title character. Students will:
- Review the plot of Act 1 of Agrippina and act out a scene between Agrippina and Poppea
- Analyze and discuss how recitativeand the da capo ariaallow for dramatic development of character
- Create a color map illustrating the structure of a da capoaria from Agrippina
- Envision a staging for a scene in Agrippina that would complement and highlight the music’s development of character
In this activity, students will reimagine the text and music of a scene from Agrippina visually and dramatically. As they discover the musical structures of Handelian opera, students will create a visual representation of an aria, imagine their own staging of a scene from the opera, and use careful listening skills to identify how Handel’s compositional techniques help audiences understand the character of Agrippina.
To launch this activity, ask students if they can think of a friendship—one they’ve experienced or observed—in which one friend pretends to care about the other while being secretly manipulative or deceitful. Students can briefly discuss or share in pairs what this manipulation looked and sounded like—what kinds of words or actions made the deceitful friend seem trustworthy or believable? Remind students that deception is a major plot point in Agrippina. Pass out the synopsis. Students should read the synopsis of Act 1 to themselves.
Check for understanding:
- Why does Agrippina deceive Poppea?
- What does Agrippina want Poppea to do?
Pass out the reproducible entitled “Agrippina Deceives Poppea.” In pairs, students should read the scene between Agrippina and Poppea. Remind students to emphasize Agrippina’s deceit (including her aside to the audience) in their acting. After a few minutes of rehearsal, invite a few pairs of students to share their interpretations with the class.
Play Track 1, the recording of the recitative “Pur al fin se n’andò” (the first part of the scene that students have just performed). This recording is approximately one minute long.After listening to this excerpt, invite students to describe what they have just heard. Some guiding questions:
- Did anything surprise you about how Handel set the scene to music?
- What instruments did you hear accompanying Agrippina and Poppea?
- Did the rhythms of the back-and-forth dialogue sound similar to the scenes you acted out?
- Would you describe the musical setting of the text as conversational or expressive? Or both? Why?
Explain to students that this kind of musical setting is called recitative, a type of singing in which singers deliver the text conversationally, usually accompanied by only a harpsichord and cello. (See the “Ten Essential Musical Terms” in this guide for a more extended definition.)
Tell students that they will now listen to Agrippina’s aria “Non ho cor che per amarti” (nohn oh COHR keh PEHR ah-MAHR-tee), which sets the final lines of this scene. Pass out colored pencils and the reproducible titled “Color Map: ‘Non ho cor che per amarti’”to students. Explain to students that in this aria, Handel repeats lines of text multiple times. As they listen to the aria, they will be illustrating the structure of the aria using different colors to represent the different lines of text. (Note that the translation of “Non ho cor che per amarti” on the color map differs slightly from the translation provided in the conversation students acted out: The color map features a more literal translation so that students can keep track of what is happening in each line of text.)
Begin by giving students about a minute to select five different colored pencils; as they make their color map, one color will correspond to each line of text. Give them a few minutes to create a key (in the column labeled “Color” on the color map reproducible), reviewing the text as they mark each line with the color they have chosen.
For example, students might choose for red to correspond to instrumental music, for green to correspond to the first line of the aria, “Non ho cor che per amarti,” and for purple to correspond to the second line of the aria “Sempre amico a te sarà.” For the first 30 seconds of the musical excerpt (during the instrumental introduction), students would draw in red, then they would draw in green during the first line of text, then purple, then green again, and so forth, as the text changes. (Educator’s Preview: What students will ultimately discover from their color map is that the first two lines of text are sung repeatedly at the beginning and at the end of the aria with the last two lines of text sandwiched in between—the traditional A–B–A da capoaria structure.)
Explain to students that as the aria plays, they can illustrate what they are hearing in whatever ways they like, as long as they follow the color-coding system and use the time stamps on the color map reproducible as a reference. (If it is not possible for students to see how much time has elapsed as the aria plays, simply direct students to begin drawing on the left side of the page and move to the right as the aria progresses.)
Play Track 2, which features the complete aria, while students complete their color map.
Ask students to switch color maps with a partner. Have students follow along with their partner’s color map while listening to the aria for a second time. Students can compare color maps as they listen.
Facilitate a discussion of what students have discovered through the color mapping. Some guiding questions:
- What do you notice in your color maps?
- Besides the repetition of text, what aspects of the aria, if any, did you try to represent in your color map (e.g., long musical lines, high notes, different instruments, etc.)?
- Which lines get repeated multiple times? Which do not?
- How would you describe the structure of the aria?
Tell students that “Non ho cor che per amarti” is a classic example of a da capoaria—“da capo” means “from the head” or “from the top.” Da capoarias always feature contrasting A and B sections of music and are structured according to an A–B–A pattern. Ask students to identify which lines of the aria are in the A section and which lines are in the B section. Explain that during the second A section, the singer will often improvise ornamentation, usually by adding extra notes or trills, or incorporating exceptionally high notes into phrases.
Ask students to briefly discuss how Handel’s music and a singer’s performance might convey Agrippina’s deception to the audience, then return to the music.
Play Track 3, the first 30 seconds of the aria (the instrumental introduction). Encourage students to represent what they hear visually by adding to their color maps, then ask them to share their observations. Some guiding questions:
- What instruments do you hear? (Note that Baroque opera features a number of instruments that are not frequently heard in operas from later periods; there is no need for students to identify these instruments, although they may comment on the unique sound of Baroque instrumentation in general.)
- What images does the section played by woodwinds bring to mind?
- How might this instrumentation help the audience understand Agrippina?
Play Track 4, the B section of the aria. Ask students to follow along in the text and translation. Encourage students to represent what they hear by adding to their color maps, then ask them to share their observations. Some guiding questions:
- Which words does Agrippina stretch out? This text-setting technique, in which a singer vocalizes a single syllable of text across multiple notes, is called a melisma. (Educator’s preview: The two words are “infedeltà” and “arti,” “infidelities” and “arts/artifices.”)
- Why do you think Handel chose these particular words for Agrippina to sing in this way?
- How does this vocal writing help the audience understand Agrippina?
Play Track 5, the recapitulation of the A section. Encourage students to represent the musical ornamentation by adding to their color maps, then ask them to share their observations. Some guiding questions:
- What do you hear in Agrippina’s vocal line?
- What can you infer about Agrippina by hearing this extensive improvised ornamentation?
- How does this ornamentation help the audience understand Agrippina?
Invite students to share with one another (or with the class) how they incorporated these new musical details into their color maps.
Now that students understand the relationship between recitative and aria, invite them to imagine in their partnerships how a director might stage this scene to bring out the contrasts between what Agrippina says and what she means. What could Agrippina do onstage, especially during the instrumental sections of the aria, to show the audience how she really feels about Poppea?Might Agrippina act differently during each of the A sections (when she is singing the same text)? Have students discuss this while the recitative and aria play. If time allows, invite a pair of students (or multiple pairs) to describe their vision for the scene or act it out for the class while the music plays.
Original audiences for Agrippina would have been familiar with the da capoaria form and would have noticed when a composer deviated from the standard A–B–A structure. Handel did just that in Agrippina’s epic Act II aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (pen-see-YEH-ree voy me tohr-men-TAH-tay), available on Track 6. As a homework assignment or further in-class project in pairs or small groups, students can listen to this aria (and the surprising recitative included inside it) and make a new color map of it. Students should consider the following questions:
- In “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate,” Agrippina describes her restless state of mind. How does Handel’s music for the aria depict Agrippina’s mental state? Think about both the instrumental introduction to the aria and the way that Handel sets Agrippina’s few lines of text.
After the expected A–B–A da capostructure concludes, Agrippina has a brief solo recitative followed by a shortened version of the A section of the aria. How do you think audiences expecting the aria to be over would react to hearing this music again? Why do you think Handel did this?