Agrippina & Nero: Rulers of Rome
c. 15 CE
The Roman noblewoman Agrippina is born on November 6 in Cologne. As a granddaughter of Rome’s first emperor, Agrippina boasts impeccable noble credentials, but as a woman, she will only ever be able to attain power through the men in her life.
Agrippina marries the nobleman Domitius.
Agrippina’s brother Caligula is crowned emperor. On December 15, Agrippina’s son Nero is born.
Accused of conspiring against Caligula, Agrippina is banished to the Pontian Islands, a small chain of islands some 70 miles west of Naples where the mythological Sirens were said to reside.
Agrippina’s husband, Domitius, dies on the Italian mainland. Agrippina is still in exile.
Fed up with Caligula’s tyranny, a group of soldiers and senators—including Caligula’s uncle Claudius—hatches a plan to rid Rome of Caligula once and for all. While a theatrical performance takes place in the palace complex, Caligula is trapped in one of the palace’s underground passageways and killed. Claudius takes the throne. Agrippina returns to Rome.
Claudius marries Agrippina, who also happens to be his niece. The following year, he officially adopts Agrippina's son, Nero.
Nero marries Claudius’s daughter Octavia.
Claudius dies, allegedly after eating a mushroom that Agrippina had sprinkled with poison. Nero ascends the throne, yet contemporary historians claim that Agrippina is the one with real power, running the empire from the shadows while her son wears Rome’s crown.
Claudius’s biological son Britannicus dies; Nero is suspected of having him poisoned. This same year, Agrippina is accused of conspiring against Nero. She is acquitted.
Nero, annoyed by Agrippina’s opposition to his love affair with Poppaea Sabina (who is already married to the future emperor Otho), decides to have Agrippina murdered. According to contemporary historians, Nero arranges to have his mother set sail in a faulty boat; when the boat collapses, Agrippina swims safely to shore—only to be murdered by Nero’s henchmen when she gets there.
Nero falsely accuses his wife, Octavia, of having an affair. He divorces her, marries Poppaea, and then promptly has Octavia executed.
Poppaea dies, likely from a miscarriage, although it is rumored that her death is caused by a brutal beating from Nero.
Nero is overthrown in a coup. He escapes to his country villa, where he takes his own life.
So Many Caesars
Students watching Agrippina might be surprised by the constant use of the word “Caesar” in the libretto, since Julius Caesar is nowhere to be found in this opera. Beginning with Emperor Augustus, all Roman emperors had the designation “Caesar” attached to their name. Thus, Claudius would have been called “Claudius Caesar,” while Nero was called “Nero Caesar.” Similarly, when Agrippina talks about Nero “becoming the Caesar,” she means simply that he will become emperor.
When Nerone starts singing in the opening scene of Agrippina, you might be very surprised: Nerone is a male character, yet his vocal range is comparable to that of his mother, Agrippina! This is because the role of Nerone was originally sung by a castrato (pl. castrati), a male singer who, for the sake of retaining his high voice, underwent surgical castration before puberty. And although the idea of castrated singers might strike modern listeners as strange or even barbaric, castrati were the Baroque opera world’s biggest stars.
Castration affected boys’ vocal cords, but it also had a profound effect on the rest of their body. By disrupting normal growth hormones, castration could result in a variety of unusual physical attributes, including remarkable height and an abnormally large chest cavity—which, in singing terms, meant powerful thoracic muscles and extra lung capacity. As such, castrati were uniquely equipped to produce the loud, sustained, highly ornamented phrases that Baroque audiences loved.
The earliest archival records of castrati date to the 1550s. At the time, castrati sang only sacred music; a biblical injunction against women singing in church had created a dearth of singers capable of performing the high parts in sacred choral works. When opera arrived on the musical scene around 1600, the castrato’s unusual voice was quickly embraced by composers working in the new genre. Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera Orfeo featured castrati singing the opera’s Prologue as well as two female roles, yet the castrato’s phenomenal vocal powers would soon lead them to be cast as the manliest role in opera: the primo uomo, or heroic male lead.
Successful castrati were the rock stars of their day, and they delighted noble and public audiences alike. The castrato commonly known as Farinelli (born Carlo Broschi, 1705–82) was knighted by the King of Spain and even had a ministerial role at the Spanish court. By the 19th century, however, changing operatic styles and new conceptions of medical ethics meant the castrato tradition was quickly dying out. The Vatican banned castrati in 1903, and the last known castrato, Alberto Moreschi, died in 1922; recordings of Moreschi singing offer modern listeners the only surviving example of this voice type.
Fortunately, singers and directors have come up with two solutions for casting castrato roles today. One solution involves having a woman sing the role formerly played by a male castrato. Another solution is the “countertenor,” a male singer who has carefully trained his falsetto range so he can sing the high notes required by castrato roles. Both of these solutions are on display in the Met’s production of Agrippina: Nerone will be played by the (female) mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, while Ottone will be played by (male) countertenor Iestyn Davies.
Follow the Money: Public Opera in Baroque Venice
Venice held a unique position in 17th- and 18th-century Italy. As an independent city state, it was free from the oversight of Vatican censors, who kept a tight lid on everything that was performed in Rome and the surrounding regions. As a republic that elected its leaders from a wide ruling class (rather than following the bloodlines of a single noble family), it boasted an unusually large number of wealthy citizens. And as the host of the most famous carnival in Europe, it was never short of people looking for a good time.
The earliest operas were written for royal courts in cities like Florence and Mantua. But in the mid-1630s, the traveling theater artist Benedetto Ferrari wondered if the new art form might not do well playing to a wider audience. If so, he reasoned, Venice’s annual carnival festivities would be the place to try it out. A period of celebration preceding the 40 ascetic days of Lent, carnival was (and is) celebrated across the Christian world. Yet the most famous carnival by far was the one in Venice, where the festivities stretched from the day after Christmas through Shrove Tuesday, a period of nearly two months. Each year, tourists flocked to the city to enjoy the wild masquerades and general loosening of social strictures for which Venice’s carnival was known.
Betting on the readiness of tourists and wealthy Venetians alike to pay for good entertainment, Ferrari set about planning a public opera performance for the carnival season of 1636–37. The resulting opera, which featured a libretto by Ferrari and marked the inaugural performance of the newly built Teatro San Cassiano, opened to tremendous popular acclaim; it also ushered in a fundamentally new economic model for the performing arts. Previously, composers and musicians had been full-time, salaried employees at the courts of noble families, writing and performing operas and other forms of musical entertainment according to their employers’ whims. By contrast, each production at the Teatro San Cassiano was funded by paying ticket holders. This model was soon adopted by other Venetian impresarios: By 1641, three more public opera houses had opened in Venice, and by 1650, over 50 operas had been performed in the city. Yet with their art form now supported by a paying public, opera composers, librettists, and impresarios had to appeal to public taste—or risk going bankrupt. Wildly impressive set designs became the norm, as did the kind of scandalous storyline that was sure to appeal to rowdy carnival-goers.
The most important (and expensive) part of the new opera venture, however, was the singer. By the late 17th century, star singers were commanding prices that, 50 years before, would have paid for an entire performance, stage sets and all. Impresarios may have balked at the astronomical rates these singers demanded, yet they must have felt it was worth it, since star singers kept audiences coming back for more. The power of the singer also inspired the musical format that was to become standard in Baroque opera: short periods of recitative followed by phenomenal solo arias, after which the singer would bask in applause and then promptly leave the stage.