In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Agrippina - what's it all about?

Nov 30, 2010 9:40:00 AM
By BLO Staff

The first opera this season, Tosca, was written at the very end of the so-called Romantic age in 1900. Giacomo Puccini used every effect he knew of to create the most dramatic opera he could. The music especially contains a great amount of orchestral writing that plays with your emotions.

For the next opera at the Shubert, BLO has decided to stage George Frideric Handel’s second (and last) opera Agrippina, with a libretto by Vincenzo Grimani. It was premiered in Venice almost two centuries earlier then Tosca, on December 26, 1709. This period of music, the so-called Baroque period (1600--1750) is completely different as far as music goes. The orchestra is much smaller, other instruments are used (such as the harpsichord), and tonally, the music is much different. You can tell these two operas are on the polar opposites of the spectrum, and that is a good thing. Yet, they are subtly connected too, making them all the more appropriate in the same season.

Agrippina is set in Rome, and although the story is fictional, it does involve historical characters and touches on real events that happened around 50 AD.

Act 1
On hearing the news that her husband, the Emperor Claudius, has died in a storm at sea, Agrippina plots to secure the throne for Nero, her son by a previous marriage. Nero is unenthusiastic about this project, but goes along with his mother's wishes. Agrippina obtains the support of her two freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, who hail Nero as the new Emperor before the Senate.

With the Senate's blessing, Agrippina and Nero begin to ascend the throne, but the ceremony is interrupted by the entrance of Claudius's servant Lesbus. He announces that his master is alive, saved from death by Otho, the commander of the army. Otho himself confirms the story, and reveals that Claudius has promised him the throne as a mark of gratitude. Agrippina is confounded, until Otho secretly confides to her that he loves the beautiful Poppaea more than he desires the throne. Agrippina, aware that Claudius also loves Poppaea, sees a new opportunity of furthering her ambitions for Nero. She goes to Poppaea and tells her, falsely, that Otho has struck a bargain with Claudius whereby he, Otho, gains the throne but gives Poppaea to Claudius. Agrippina advises Poppaea to turn the tables on Otho by telling the Emperor that Otho has ordered her to refuse Claudius's attentions. This, Agrippina believes, will make Claudius revoke his promise to Otho of the throne.

Poppaea believes Agrippina. When Claudius arrives at Poppaea's house she reveals what she believes is Otho's treachery. Claudius departs in fury, while Agrippina cynically consoles Poppaea by declaring that their friendship will never be broken by deceit.

Act 2
Pallas and Narcissus realize that Agrippina has tricked them into supporting Nero, and decide to have no more to do with her. Otho arrives, nervous about his forthcoming coronation, followed by Agrippina, Nero and Poppaea, who have come to greet Claudius. Each in turns pays tribute to the Emperor, but Otho is coldly rebuffed as Claudius denounces him as a traitor. Otho is devastated, and he appeals to Agrippina, Poppaea, and Nero for support; they all reject him. This leaves him in bewilderment and despair.
Poppaea is, however, touched by her former beloved's grief and wonders if he might not be innocent. She devises a plan, which involves pretended sleep and, when Otho approaches her, sleep-talking what Agrippina has told her earlier. Otho, as intended, overhears her and fiercely protests his innocence. He convinces Poppaea that Agrippina has deceived her. Poppaea swears revenge, but she is distracted when Nero comes forward and declares his love for her. Meanwhile, Agrippina has lost the support of Pallas and Narcissus but manages to convince Claudius that Otho is still plotting to take the throne. She advises him that he should end Otho's ambitions once and for all by abdicating in favor of Nero. Claudius, eager to be with Poppaea again, agrees.

Act 3
Poppaea now plans some deceit of her own, in an effort to divert Claudius's wrath from Otho with whom she is now reconciled. She hides Otho in her bedroom with instructions to listen carefully. Nero arrives to press his love on her, but she tricks him into hiding as well. Claudius then enters; Poppaea tells him that he had earlier misunderstood her: it was not Otho but Nero who had ordered her to reject Claudius. To prove her point she asks Claudius to pretend to leave, then she summons Nero who, thinking Claudius has gone, resumes his passionate wooing of Poppaea. Claudius suddenly reappears, and angrily dismisses the crestfallen Nero. After Claudius departs, Poppaea brings Otho out of hiding and the two express their everlasting love in separate arias.

At the palace, Nero tells Agrippina of his troubles, and decides to renounce love for political ambition. By now, Pallas and Narcissus have revealed Agrippina's original plot to Claudius, so that when Agrippina urges the Emperor to yield the throne to Nero, he accuses her of treachery. She then claims that her efforts to secure the throne for Nero had all along been a ruse to safeguard the throne for Claudius. He believes her; nevertheless, when Poppaea, Otho, and Nero arrive, Claudius announces that Nero and Poppaea will marry, and that Otho shall have the throne. No one is satisfied with this arrangement, as their desires have all changed, so Claudius in a spirit of reconciliation reverses his judgement, giving Poppaea to Otho and the throne to Nero. He then summons the goddess Juno, who descends to pronounce a general blessing.

This is the type of opera that can be widely entertaining and have a double meaning to it as well (lying, honesty, betrayal), these are but a few things that happen in this opera. It is an opera not to be missed!

- Rob Tedesco, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Topics: Student Posts, Agrippina

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