“Agrippina” by Handel: integrity is always rewarded, even in the most complex political situations…

MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Thursday February 6th, 2020.

This week friends, welcome back, to another thrilling and fun evening, once again, at the MET Opera, to discover a wonderful and sizzling MET Opera Premiere; a beautiful, uplifting, baroque, farcical, satirical, erotically charged, yet also, at times, poignant, political masterpiece; which definitely needs to be promoted in the opera/theater world, as is, incredibly entertaining, one of the best and most original works I have seen, so far, this season, at the MET, (with “Akhnaten” by Glass, being my other favorite discovery); as “Agrippina” is incredibly intelligent, complex, and nuanced, a (three acts) masterpiece; by Handel (1685-1759); rarely given around the world; even though, it is fantastically rich; dark at times, and filled with light and joy, at others; an overall lighthearted atmosphere, seeps through the work, thanks to Handel’s brilliant music (even if, my favorite musical moments, are the ones, filled with more gravitas); despite the intrigue, and conniving characters, and believe it or not, but “Agrippina” also, ends well!

Yay!

And I must say, right off the bat, how much the McVicar, beautiful, modern, dynamic, stylish, sexy production, including gorgeous, modern, sleek attire/costumes and set by Macfarlane, adds tremendously to the timelessness, of this unique, baroque, and political opera, to its joy, humor, wit, and beauty!

Yay!

I especially loved the clarity of the “imperial throne” symbol, to evoke unending, undermining, manipulative ambition; via an endless, bright, and attractive, demanding staircase, to climb steadily, patiently, and with determination, to finally access the “imperial throne”.

What a great “prop”, to tell the entire story of this irreverent, political operatic satire, with just one monumental brilliant piece of staging!

Yay!

And what great dynamic conducting, from British maestro extraordinaire, Harry Bicket, which kept the pace, wonderfully vibrant!

As was the entire cast of brilliant, wonderfully talented singers: awesome American mezzo-soprano, Joyce Di Donato, was just amazing, so formidable as the fierce, scheming Agrippina, a great anti-heroine; I think I was equally impressed by the pyro-dynamic acting, of American mezzo-soprano, Kate Lindsey, as the “bonkers” Nerone/Nero, or by the witty sexiness, of American soprano, Brenda Rae as the equally intelligent, and scheming Poppea, a Roman lady; yet a courtesan like character, who fascinates all the leading men of the opera; as was British countertenor, Iestyn Davies, as the brave, love struck, and loyal Roman commander Ottone; and as was British bass, Mathew Rose, as the cartoonish emperor Claudio/Claudius.

How about that?

What an incredible cast!

Yay!

And “Agrippina”, is a masterpiece, not only musically, but also psychologically, and politically; as it showcased the incredible versatility, mastery and ease, of young, dynamic and energetic Handel (who was 24, when he composed this opera, in Italy); but also, thanks to its astute, satirical and brilliant libretto, by distinguished diplomat, Cardinal Grimani.

Yay!

And “Agrippina”‘s lightheartedness, sexiness, hopelessness at times, and rich political flair, no doubt, thrilled its audiences, immediately and initially, when it premiered in Venice in 1709; as it painted both an expressive, authentic, and yet, mostly highly entertaining, snapshot of a truly, fascinating and intricate, extremely dark political Roman era; yet sketching out the characters, with mostly humor, wit and joyful depictions, at this stage in their lives.

The real Agrippina being, for those of you, who like me, like a historical summary, the great granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, the sister of notorious Caligula, the fourth wife of Emperor Claudius, and mother of Nero (from another marriage), who would eventually murder her later).

Oh boy!

In addition, this opera reflected also, indirectly, the librettist (Grimani)’s diplomatic rivalry, with Pope Clement XI, which amused the crowds of the time, as well, of course.

And believe it or not, but, many of Agrippina’s political “intriguing feats”, have fascinated historians, artists (including musicians), over the years (including Monteverdi, a few years prior to Handel’s “Agrippina”, who depicted a darker version of that Roman era, in 1643, with “L’Incoronazione de Poppea”, and which, most of the opera audiences, were familiar with).

How about that?

Yet, what I find particularly fascinating with this opera, is that, thanks to Grimani’s brilliant libretto, the passionate, wild and young Handel, with the help of his librettist, is/are able to describe Agrippina’s “intriguing feats”, in an entertaining way, for his/their audience: mostly satirical, often playful, and also, at times, sexy.

How about that?

Perhaps unrealistic at times, but still ringing true, to many audience members.

Yet, despite the evident public enthusiasm for the work, when “Agrippina” premiered in 1709, interestingly, “Agrippina”, as well as many others of Handel’s operas, by the mid-18th century, stopped catching music fans’ attention. And it is only, in the 20th century, that Handel’s operas, started to be staged again, including “Agrippina”; whose freshness, irreverence, and musical invention, lead modern critics to laud it, as a masterpiece.  

Yay!

And I was wondering last night, why Handel’s operas had stopped being “trendy”, despite their initial success; and was wondering, if that was due to the fact also, that, at that time, in those Baroque times, even though it was standard practice, composers (Handel included), sometimes “borrowed” music from their/his own previous oratorios or cantatas/or even operas for their/his upcoming operas, to write them faster. And I was wondering, if after a while, that “practice” annoyed audiences?

Who knows?

Some of “Agrippina”‘s music for example, can be heard, believe it or not, in, at least, three other works by Handel: the beautiful “Bel piecer” aria, can be heard for example, in another of Handel’s opera, which I particularly like “Rinaldo” (1711).

For fun, let’s listen to another of my favorite arias from “Rinaldo”; a particularly beautiful yet melancholic aria, “Lascia ch’io pianga”, and one you may recognize:

Enjoy!

Also, some of, not much, of “Agrippina”‘s music, originated from another famous and mythical/pastoral inspired, Handel work, from 1708, a dramatic cantata/serenata/ one act masque “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo”; which then evolved to a three act serenata : “Acis and Galatea” in 1732, and was also rearranged, famously, by Mozart in 1788.

How about that?

And finally, believe it or not, but even Handel’s “Messiah”, has one excerpt of “Agrippina”‘s music.

How about that?

And for fun, let’s listen to a Mozartian arrangement (yes Mozart did!) of Handel’s “Messiah”‘s epic “Hallelujah”, which layered on to Handel’s original score, more instruments, altered performance indications (including articulations, trills and tempo); and which, whether performing the original score, or Mozart’s arrangement, for any chorister, is always a blast to perform, during the Christmas holidays!

Enjoy!

Isn’t it awesome?

And I mention Mozart, because, as many subsequent composers, Mozart had tremendous admiration for all of Handel’s work: it is believed, Mozart said about Handel, the following:

“He is the master of us all.”

“Handel understands effect, better than any of us, when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

How about that?

As did Beethoven, who, when asked to name the greatest composer ever, is said to have responded:

“Handel, to him I bow the knee.”

How about that?

Anyway, I was just wondering, if that “borrowing” tradition may have explained why Handel’s operas, fell “out of fashion”, despite their great lyricism, and despite the reality of Handel’s composers/peers admiration, over the centuries?

Who knows?

I got distracted and carried away, as often; so let’s get back to “Agrippina”:

So what is “Agrippina’s” plot about, in a nutshell?

“Agrippina” describes political machinations and ultimate feat of this formidable, yet scheming, anti-heroine, Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudio, regarding the succession of the imperial throne; to ensure it would be given by Emperor Claudio/Claudius, to her son Nerone/Nero (from another marriage), instead of given to Britannicus, the Emperor’s own son.

How about that?

Oh boy!

And Agrippina’s ambitious plotting, and, as well as, some of the other characters’ own ambitions) are all depicted, in simplified, farcical, inept, and yet, witty ways, to make it more entertaining, of course, to the audience.

How about that?

So what kind of ruler was she, historically? Agrippina, let me remind you, was often described, as a very politically adept, and very shrewd, scheming, ruthless, power driven woman; who, after marrying in 49 A.D. Emperor Claudius (her uncle); as his wife, became his political partner.

How about that?

And in this opera, the storyline is streamlined, despite loads of entertaining intrigue and lies, and describes with gusto, how Agrippina is able to ultimately, influence Claudio, and his entourage, towards her goals.

How about that?

So let me summarize, as best as possible, now that we have a better idea of who Agrippina was, the main elements of each of the opera’s three rich acts, and share my two favorite arias, from “Agrippina”.

Yay!

Act 1 depicts how Empress Agrippina, having learned that her husband, Emperor Claudio’s ship, capsized after his conquest of Britain, and that he, (Claudio) is presumably dead, keeps the information to herself. She then urges her son from another marriage, Nerone, to win popular favor, by being seen, doing good deeds around the city. Two of Claudio’s political allies, Pallante and Narciso are recruited, to help her “promote” her son Nerone, as being the successor of Claudio, when that day will come, they being promised sexual favors in return. Oh boy. When Agrippina then, breaks the news, of Claudio’s death, both Pallante and Narciso hail Nerone, as the new Caesar, and Agrippina quickly agrees.

Suddenly, exciting news of Claudio’s rescue by his loyal officer Ottone, reaches Agrippina, who feigns joy, and is dumbstruck, when she learns that Ottone has been promised the throne, in return; yet, we quickly realize, that Ottone is not interested in the throne, but only in a Roman lady, the beautiful and charming Poppea; oh boy; (and here is where the satirical slapstick humor begins) Poppea being also pursued by Claudio himself, oh boy, as Agrippina knows; oh boy; Agrippina decides to lie to Poppea; oh boy; to prevent Ottone from getting the throne, oh boy; by telling Poppea who longs for Ottone, oh boy; that Ottone has given her up to Claudio, oh boy; to gain the throne, oh boy. Agrippina advises Poppea to take revenge; oh boy; by refusing Claudio’s advances, oh boy; and by accusing Ottone of standing in the way of Claudio and herself, oh boy; by insinuating that Ottone, is already acting, as a “de facto” emperor. Claudio promises to punish Ottone; oh boy; and the approach of Agrippina, oh boy; stops his amorous pursuit of Poppea; oh boy; Agrippina congratulates Poppea for her convincing “lies”, oh boy; and Poppea feels terribly wrong for having hurt Ottone. Oh boy.

Act 2 depicts how Pallante and Narciso try to work together, when they discover they have been played by Agrippina; oh boy; Ottone announces his succession to the throne; yet, when Ottone officially meets with Claudio, out of the blue, Claudio declares him a traitor, and to Ottone’s astonishment and despair, Ottone then sees himself, abandoned by all; oh boy. Yet, when Ottone discovers later, Poppea, “sleep walking”; and “explaining” Agrippina’s plot to dethrone Ottone, Ottone defends himself, and Poppea realizes, she has been “played” by Agrippina; oh boy; and starts planning a “counter plot”, against Agrippina. Agrippina plans are crushed; yet, in the meantime, through cajoling, she later persuades again, both Pallante and Narciso, to help her, get rid of enemies; oh boy; and nags Claudio, to name Nerone, as his successor. Oh boy!

And two of my favorite arias, happen in the second act of “Agrippina”. Despite all the silliness, I have mentioned, let’s listen to two beautiful heart felt, and tormented moments, from two key characters:

First, let’s listen to the despair and humanity of Ottone, when he finds himself abandoned by all: it is incredibly sad of course, but so beautiful!

Enjoy!:

Isn’t it gorgeous, although so sad?

And I think, Ottone is the only virtuous and noble character, with integrity, who saves Claudio’s life, refrains from wanting the emperor’s throne, and only truly gallant character in this story; always interested in the higher good for all, for which, he will be rewarded for.

Yay!

Let’s now, listen to another sad aria, sung by Agrippina, this time, again in Act 2, when all her plans have gone wrong. It is just sublime!

Enjoy!

https://youtu.be/h2bZB_2sDV8

Isn’t it just gorgeous?

Let’s get back to the last act of “Agrippina”:

Act 3 depicts how an amorous Ottone, is being hidden at Poppea’s apartment, in a closet, followed by an equally amorous, and silly Nerone, also hidden, in a different closet, followed then, by Claudio, to whom Poppea tells, that Claudio has “ruined” the wrong man, as it is Nerone, and not Ottone, Claudio’s true rival, revealing Nerone’s “hiding” place; Poppea then, begs Claudio to leave, out of fear of Agrippina’s possible revenge. Claudio storms out. Ottone and Poppea are reunited, Nerone tells Agrippina about Poppea’s treachery; and Agrippina, scorns on Nerone for his credulity. After a few other silly “scheming lies” from both Pallante, Narciso, Agrippina and Claudio, Ottone is made once more, successor to the imperial throne. Ottone refuses the throne, and reunites with Poppea. Nerone “inherits” then, the throne. Ottone and Poppea’s union is blessed by Claudio. Agrippina is triumphant. And Claudio prays for the future welfare of Rome — Oh boy!

Isn’t this tornado of “intrigue” and passion, mostly slapstick and fun, despite all the ‘treacheries” between all, to create drama, and amuse the audience?

And so reminiscent of manipulative power driven heroes /heroines, from all ages and times, including imaginary characters on TV Shows, such as “Veep”, with the brilliantly funny, and intelligent, politically incorrect, wildly ambitious, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has made/makes, so many of us, laugh wholeheartedly, out-loud, in so many situations, in that show.

Yet the slapstick fun, of all these often inept politicians, whether men or women, reminds me also, that sometimes, life twists and turns, can actually turn out better, for all individuals, when solidarity is present, including for the fun, yet smart; joyful yet grounded beings; always interested in the highest good for all; who help each other out, each in their own way, and always benevolent, sometimes even heroic, as charming anti-heroes can sometimes be, who all, become friends, as they all do, in this silly, 1986, Landis slapstick comedy, which I am sure, would have also amused Handel!

Yay!

See you in a few weeks, after the upcoming February vacation break!

Yay!

Soft…

Fluttering…

Joyful…

Happy…

Peaceful…

Loving…

Eternal butterflies 😊