Plot & Creation
An opera in three acts, sung in Italian
Music by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by Vincenzo Grimani
An original libretto by Vincenzo Grimani, loosely based on Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome
The Roman writer and politician Tacitus was born around 56 ce, during the reign of Emperor Nero, and died sometime after 117, during the reign of Emperor Trajan. In between, he enjoyed a prestigious political career with appointments across the sprawling Roman empire. His writings on Roman history thus offer modern scholars a remarkable resource: a contemporary perspective on first-century Roman politics by somebody intimately involved in the major events of the day. Tacitus’s Histories, a monumental work that originally covered the years 68 ce through 96 ce, has mostly been lost; only the years 68 and 69 survive. By contrast, his Annals of Imperial Rome, which stretch from 4 ce (during the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus) to 68 ce (the date of Nero’s death), have come down to modern readers almost completely intact. As such, the exquisitely detailed Annals—the name comes from annus, the Latin word for “year”—are the primary historical record of Agrippina’s dubious exploits.
The image of Agrippina that emerges from the Annals is that of a depraved, vindictive, and power-hungry woman. According to Tacitus, she poisoned her stepson, her second and third husbands, and one of Nero’s potential rivals; forced a Roman consul to commit suicide; and had the emperor Caligula’s ex-wife executed when it looked like Claudius might marry her instead of Agrippina. As proof of Agrippina’s no-holds-barred attitude toward getting and keeping power, Tacitus also outlined her romantic conquests, which included her uncle (and later husband) Claudius, her late sister’s husband, and her son, Nero.
Baroque opera often featured tales and figures from antiquity, especially ancient Greece and Rome, and Agrippina and Nero’s delightfully depraved story was an audience favorite almost from the genre’s inception. In 1643, only six years after the world’s first public opera performance, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea detailed Nero’s disastrous extramarital affair with the noblewoman Poppaea Sabina. By the time Handel and Grimani set about writing Agrippina, more than a dozen other operas about Agrippina and Nero had already been composed—including Handel’s own German-language opera Nero, from 1705.
The story’s appeal for librettist Vincenzo Grimani was thus obvious: As the owner of Venice’s San Giovanni Grisostomo theater, where Agrippina premiered, Grimani had a vested financial interest in the opera’s success. Yet there may have been more to Grimani’s decision to set this salacious Roman story than pure financial gain. In addition to running a theater, Grimani was an ambassador to the Habsburg Empire, a political powerhouse centered in Vienna and a longstanding enemy of the Papal States, and Grimani took no pains to disguise his antipathy toward Pope Clement XI. It has therefore been suggested that Agrippina, an opera about political corruption in ancient Rome, was a barely disguised stab at the pope and his entourage in the 18th-century incarnation of that same city.
The imperial palace in ancient Rome
Agrippina sits in her dressing room holding a letter. The message is tragic—Agrippina’s husband, the Roman emperor Claudio, has died in a shipwreck—but Agrippina is bursting with joy: Now she has a chance to make Nerone, her son from a previous marriage, the emperor of Rome. She already has a plan to secure Nerone the crown, but she warns him that he must follow her instructions to the letter. Nerone promises to do anything she says.
Agrippina knows that any emperor will need support from Rome’s politicians, so she approaches the courtier Pallante, slyly tells him about Claudio’s death, and says she will marry him if he nominates Nerone as emperor. Pallante happily agrees. Next, Agrippina approaches the courtier Narciso and makes him a similar offer, promising to marry him if he supports Nerone’s bid for the throne. Narciso, too, agrees. Agrippina is now engaged to two different men, but she has no intention of marrying either of them. In fact, she’ll lie to anyone if it means helping her son.
The Capitoline hill
Outside the Capitol (the government building in Rome), Nerone distributes money to the city’s poor. Pallante and Narciso praise his generosity and, declaring that his kindness qualifies him to lead Rome, nominate him for emperor. But just as Agrippina is about to place the crown on Nerone’s head, trumpets are heard, and Claudio’s servant, Lesbo, arrives with shocking news: Claudio is alive! Although his ship did, indeed, sink, Claudio was saved from drowning by the soldier Ottone. Obviously, this means that Nerone can’t become emperor, which annoys Agrippina. But an even greater shock is still to come, when the heroic Ottone enters and announces that Claudio has decided to reward his bravery by naming him Rome’s next emperor.
Agrippina is dumbstruck, but she hides her fury well—so well, in fact, that Ottone pulls her aside and tells her a secret: He is in love with the noblewoman Poppea. Agrippina immediately sees a new opportunity for mischief because she knows that someone else is also in love with Poppea: her husband, the emperor, Claudio.
Poppea eagerly awaits Ottone’s return. Although Claudio and Nerone have both declared they love her, Poppea loves only the humble soldier Ottone. Soon, there is a knock at the door. Agrippina enters. She says that Ottone has decided to trade Poppea for political power, offering to let Claudio have her if he (Ottone) can be emperor. Agrippina’s story is a lie, but Poppea believes her, and she even takes Agrippina’s advice on how to deal with Ottone and Claudio. That evening, when Claudio visits Poppea, she sends him away, explaining (as Agrippina instructed) that Ottone has ordered her never to see him again. Furious, Claudio declares he will never let Ottone be emperor—which, of course, is exactly what Agrippina wants.
The Capitoline hill
Agrippina, Poppea, Ottone, and Nerone have gathered to celebrate Claudio’s return to Rome. Claudio reflects that the whole world is falling to its knees before Rome’s might and imagines a bright future for his empire. Hearing this, Ottone asks Claudio about his promise to make him emperor. Claudio flies into a rage and accuses Ottone of treachery. Ottone has no idea what Claudio is talking about, and he feels hurt and confused.
Poppea, meanwhile, still can’t understand why Ottone would betray her. She is sure there is more to the situation than meets the eye, so when she sees Ottone approaching, she decides to find out the truth. Pretending to be asleep, she begins murmuring about how Ottone traded her for the crown of Rome. Ottone can’t believe his ears. He asks Poppea where she heard such vile lies. Together, they realize that Agrippina has tricked everyone, and they figure out that she must be doing it to put Nerone on the throne. Poppea promises to give Agrippina a taste of her own medicine and clear Ottone’s name. She soon comes up with a plan, and when Claudio and Nerone each express a desire to see her that evening, she invites them both to visit her at home.
Agrippina realizes that Poppea has stopped following her orders, but she thinks she still has three people—Claudio, Pallante, and Narciso—under her control. One by one, she approaches them and asks them to kill Ottone. Pallante and Narciso have already figured out that Agrippina tricked them, and they avoid answering, but Claudio readily agrees.
Nerone arrives at Poppea’s house looking forward to their tryst, but Poppea says she is worried about them being found together and forces Nerone to hide in her closet. A few minutes later, Claudio shows up. Instead of welcoming him, Poppea asks why he hasn’t punished the person who tried to keep them apart. Claudio says he did punish Ottone, but Poppea, feigning surprise, replies that it wasn’t Ottone demanding her love—it was Nerone. As proof, she opens the closet door to reveal Claudio’s stepson.
The imperial palace
Nerone flees Poppea’s house and runs to his mother for sympathy. Agrippina, however, is furious when she hears how Nerone allowed his crush on Poppea to jeopardize their plans. Nerone promises to forget Poppea and focus instead on the throne.
Claudio, meanwhile, wonders what is really going on. He knows someone is lying to him, but is it Poppea? Nerone? Ottone? Or could it be Agrippina? Soon he bumps into Narciso and Pallante, who tell him how Agrippina attempted to use the report of Claudio’s death to get Nerone crowned emperor. Claudio finally recognizes Agrippina’s treachery. He is understandably angry, but Agrippina tells him that if he truly wants to have a peaceful empire, he must banish anger from his own heart.
Claudio apologizes to Ottone and declares that Ottone will be emperor and Nerone will marry Poppea. No one is happy with this solution. Ottone explains that he has no interest in becoming emperor; all he wants is Poppea. Claudio finally understands that love is more important to Ottone than power, while Nerone cares only for the throne, so he issues a new decree: Poppea will marry Ottone, and Nerone will be the new emperor of Rome.
George Frideric Handel is born on February 23 in Halle, a city in central Germany. His father, a physician at the court of Saxony, hopes Handel will grow up to be a lawyer and actively discourages his son’s interest in music. Little Handel, however, is not deterred: According to an early biography, he secretly practices harpsichord in the attic.
The Duke of Saxony hears Handel, age nine, playing organ, and he convinces Handel’s father to procure a musical education for the remarkably talented child.
Handel enrolls in law school at the University of Halle. Yet he still hopes to pursue a career in music, and the provincial Halle will soon prove too small for his artistic needs. Around this time, Handel visits Berlin, where he likely meets two Italian opera composers working at the Prussian court.
Handel moves to Hamburg, one of the major musical centers in northern Germany. He soon gets a job as a violinist and continuo player at the Hamburg Opera, the only “public” opera (i.e., that operates outside of a court setting) in Germany.
On January 8, Handel’s first opera, Almira, receives its premiere at the Hamburg Opera. Less than seven weeks later, on February 25, his second opera, Nero, debuts there, as well. In contrast to the operas he will write later in life, both Almira and Nero are in German.
Handel travels to Italy. His soon takes up residence in Rome, where he enjoys the patronage of the nobility and clergy, as well as collaborations with many of the city’s most famous musicians. Although Italy is the operatic capital of Europe, Handel writes no operas while in Rome, since opera performances have been banned by the pope. He does, however, compose a variety of sacred and secular works, many of which feature the same recitative-aria structure he will employ in his operas.
Handel’s first Italian opera, Rodrigo, premieres in Florence.
In January, the Hamburg Opera performs two more of Handel’s German-language operas. Handel likely returns to Hamburg for the occasion, although Italy remains his primary country of residence.
Handel travels to Venice. The birthplace of public opera and one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, Venice is the ideal location for a young composer seeking to make his name in the world of opera.
On December 26, Agrippina premieres at Venice’s San Giovanni Grisostomo theater. The inaugural opera of the carnival season, it is an instant hit. According to Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, Agrippina enjoys 27 consecutive nights of performances—even though two other opera theaters are also open at the same time—and the auditorium is filled with shouts of “Viva il caro Sassone! [“Long live the dear Saxon!”], a reference to Handel’s place of birth.
Handel returns to Germany to take up a position as music director at the court of the Elector of Hannover.
Handel’s newest opera, Rinaldo, premieres in London to wild acclaim. Italian opera has been popular in London since around 1705, but most of these performances have been “pastiches,” operas cobbled together from a variety of pre-existing works. Rinaldo, by contrast, is a newly composed opera by a single composer, and it establishes Handel as the king of Italian opera in London. Over the next three decades, Handel will write no fewer than 38 operas for the London stage.
On April 13, Handel’s oratorio Messiah premieres in Dublin. At this time, most music is composed for a specific occasion; after the intended performance, the composition is typically retired and never heard again. (The works of J.S. Bach, for instance, will languish in obscurity for nearly a century between the composer’s death in 1750 and their revival in the middle of the 19th century.) Messiah, by contrast, is never retired. From 1743 on, Handel will conduct yearly charity performances of the work in London to great acclaim, and even after Handel’s death, the oratorio is regularly performed. Messiah thus marks the first piece of classical music to remain in the performing repertoire from the time of its composition through the present day.
Handel dies on April 14, only nine days after conducting his last performance of Messiah.