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Handel’s Agrippina – Program Notes

April 23, 2015

Program notes by Martin Pearlman

“The audience was so enchanted with [Agrippina], that . . . the theatre at almost every pause, resounded with shouts and acclamations of viva il caro Sassone! [long live the dear Saxon] and other expressions of approbation too extravagant to be mentioned. They were thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style: for never had they known till then all the powers of harmony and modulation so closely arrayed, and so forcibly combined.”

This account is by Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, who was born well after the event. Whether or not the audience experienced the “harmony and modulation” in exactly this way, there is no doubt about the resounding success of Handel’s second opera. It ran for an extraordinary 27 performances and established the 24-year-old composer’s reputation throughout Europe. It was the first huge triumph of his career.

Agrippina was written toward the end of Handel’s formative years in Italy, and the first performances took place in Venice at the theater of San Giovanni Gristostomo during the winter carnival season of 1709-10 . The cast included some of the most famous names in opera, including Margherita Durastanti, for whom Handel created the title role and who later went on to sing many of Handel’s operas in England. Poppea was sung by the soprano Diamante Maria Scarabelli, whose virtuosic technique inspired Handel to add a flashy aria to the opera during its initial run. Interestingly, the role of the hero Otho was written for a woman (Francesca Vanini-Boschi), and we therefore have a woman singing it in our production. The high role of Nero, however, was sung by a man, the castrato Valeriano Pellegrini; for that role, we have cast a man singing counter-tenor.

The music of Agrippina has the wonderfully fresh and inventive spirit of Handel’s youth. But it is not entirely original: despite the fact that Handel was still a young man, he recycled many of his own earlier works — mostly works which had previously only been heard in private salons — and, in a few instances, he adapted works of other composers. These “borrowed” works became the basis of his overture and all but five of the arias in this opera, but they were extensively rewritten for Agrippina and brilliantly reveal the characters in each role. As with Messiah, Handel is said to have composed the entire opera in a mere three weeks, a feat that is astonishing even with the borrowed music.

The libretto is by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (whose family owned the theater), and it was written expressly for Handel. That was unusual, since, for most of his other operas, Handel turned to libretti in the public domain which had already been set to music by other composers. The characters in this opera, with the exception of Lesbo, are all historical, although Grimani takes liberties with his chronology. Their story derives from the accounts by Tacitus and Suetonius, but here they are treated with a lighter — and sometimes more comical — touch than the characters in those ancient sources, or indeed than the characters in most of Handel’s later operas. Agrippina, the mother of Nero and wife of Claudius, schemes to place her son on the throne while navigating the tangled relationships of Nero, Poppea and Otho. The story has its sequel in the much earlier Monteverdi opera The Coronation of Poppea, which follows the vicissitudes of these last three characters.

Handel’s success with Agrippina changed the course of his life. Among the dignitaries in the audience were Baron Kielmansegge of Hanover and Prince Ernst, the brother of the Elector of Hanover, both of whom went repeatedly to hear the new opera. Handel was soon offered a position at the court in Hanover and left Italy for Germany. As it happened, Germany would be only a brief stop on his path to London, where the greater part of his career would unfold.

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