"An operatic masterpiece ... Handel blessed 'Agrippina' with some of his finest music, creating a fascinating, underlying tension that keeps the story compelling, yet never interferes with the opera's overall satirical impact." —NPR
Shocking power struggles and serpentine acts of lust and betrayal define Handel's "Agrippina," a dark comedy about a woman who schemes to advance her son's career at a high-tech company after the presumed death of his superior. With vocal fireworks and despairing laments in a captivating score, "Agrippina" is sexy and suspenseful political intrigue that promises to grip the audience from start to finish.
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Agrippina has just received word that her husband Claudio has died. ROMA Corporation is now without a CEO and Agrippina wants Nerone—her son from another marriage—to take the position. She exploits the love of Pallante and Narciso to set this plot in motion. Agrippina announces to the shareholders that Claudio is dead and Nerone is the new CEO. This arrangement is short-lived, however, once Lesbo, Claudio’s assistant, arrives to announce that Claudio lives and has named Ottone the next CEO. Ottone reveals to Agrippina that he is in love with the beautiful Poppea, whom both Claudio and Nerone are also smitten with. Agrippina decides to use this to her advantage: She convinces Poppea that Ottone became CEO by offering her up in exchange to Claudio. Upset that Ottone could do such a thing, Poppea in turn convinces Claudio that Ottone is actually a traitor unfit for the CEO title.
During the celebration of Claudio’s return, Claudio calls Ottone a traitor. Everyone shuns him, including Poppea, but upon seeing Ottone’s pain, Poppea meets with him and learns that he is innocent of any deceit. When she realizes that she has been taken advantage of by Agrippina, she plans her revenge. Pallante and Narciso also become aware that Agrippina is using them but still fall victim to her scheming when she drives them to make attempts on Ottone’s life. Agrippina then convinces Claudio that Ottone is seeking revenge and makes him promise to make Nerone CEO.
Setting her own plans in motion, Poppea asks Ottone to hide in her office to overhear her conversations with Claudio and Nerone, whom she has called separately to her office. Nerone arrives to make his move on Poppea but is immediately forced to hide under the pretense that his mother could arrive any minute. Claudio arrives on the scene next, also in hopes of wooing Poppea. Poppea then convinces Claudio that it is Nerone that is the traitor instead of Ottone. Nerone comes out of hiding and Claudio chases him from the room. Nothing stands in the way of Ottone and Poppea now. Nerone runs to tell Agrippina of Poppea’s plot. At the same time, Pallante and Narciso tell Claudio that Agrippina has been scheming to make Nerone the next CEO. Claudio calls for Agrippina to explain as he doesn’t know who to believe. With cunning, Agrippina convinces Claudio that she was acting in his best interest. Finally, Claudio summons Nerone, Ottone and Poppea to finally put an end to the turmoil. Nerone is named CEO, while Ottone and Poppea are allowed to marry. The goddess of marriage, Juno, descends from the heavens to bless the marriage.
Stage director’s note
By Leigh Holman
At the time Handel wrote Agrippina, it was customary to depict the stories of ancient Roman emperors like Caesar, Agrippina the Younger, Nero and Poppea in plays and operas. In fact, just a few years ago, Eklund Opera presented The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi (written some 50 years before Agrippina). We have had a wonderful several years of digging into the depth of these characters.
Whereas the Monteverdi piece hails the powerful and manipulative Poppea as the prima donna, in Handel’s piece she is the young, witty ingénue who seems to learn her manipulative strategies from the much practiced Agrippina. Both pieces—being somewhat feminist for the periods in which they were written—depict women of great strength, intelligence, power and intuition. Both works represent an entertaining chess game, if you will, but only Handel’s infuses the game with loads of wit and comedy.
Our production embraces Agrippina’s timeless storyline, allowing history to marry what’s relevant to current audiences. Because of the powerful influence of Big Tech companies and their unforeseen influences on our daily lives—much like the political leadership of the Roman empire—the design team and I set the piece in a modern San Francisco tech software company. When the CEO of the company, Claudio (aka Caesar), is lost at sea in an airplane accident, his wife Agrippina begins to use her power to influence shareholders, executives and customers into making her son CEO. Though power, greed and manipulation win out for son Nerone, love is the ultimate victor. Like any classic story, the villains change for the good, or they at least get what they want so they can—by George—leave everyone else alone.
It’s a glorious plot, peppered with light and bright humor hidden in plain sight (aptly provided by beloved tech nerds Narcisso and Pallante and Lesbos, a personal assistant). The small cast of characters sing together to provide a larger-than-life chorus of tech leaders and employees whose coffees keep them running at full speed across the 24-hour period of dramatic comedy. As a director, having the leeway to transform works (especially rarely known ones) into modern adaptations is a complete joy. It leaves room for creativity from those with the original vision and those (the actor/singers) who bring so many details and ideas to the table.
Handel is known for his “toe-tapping” music, but he also provides us with a few arias that dig deep into the soul and leave us with a dripping tear down the cheek. My favorite is Ottone’s “Voi che udine il mio lamento,” which depicts a forgotten, mocked and bullied man who appears to have lost the many friends who once loved him. The moment reminds us that love can sometimes be fleeting, and it promises to grab the heart of every audience member.
How lucky we are to have such talent in the College of Music. Singers with small, medium, and large voices who learn to move their voices with gorgeous agility and emotional timbre; with curious minds excited to learn and execute the baroque style of singing; and all while utilizing the modern style of acting and making each note, each phrase, sing with beauty and feeling.
Music director’s note
By Nicholas Carthy
Picasso once joked, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Nobody was more adept at borrowing/stealing than Georg Friederich Händel. True, most baroque composers repurposed both their own and others’ music: In Bach, for example, cantatas become partitas, violin concertos are reformed into keyboard concertos, and much of the great B-minor mass is based on earlier compositions. But when Bach did borrow, as in the four Vivaldi concertos that he transcribed for organ, he did at least acknowledge it. Händel, not so much. When accused of plagiarism of other composers’ melodies, he blithely remarked: “And why not? They don’t know what to do with them!”
In fact, over 90% of Agrippina is traceable back to earlier compositions. In a way, this was simply the way Händel thought of composition—not as an art, but as a craft—and as such, building on earlier achievements, both his own and other composers’, was considered in his circle as pretty de rigueur. This magpie-like attitude also explains Händel’s immense curiosity and his ability to effortlessly integrate other styles into his writing. Born in Hannover in 1750 (the same year as Bach), Händel’s life can be roughly divided into three periods: Germany, Italy and England (where he wrote The Messiah).
Agrippina was written in Italy when Händel was 26, and it was a great triumph; the Italians feted him as the savior of the Italian baroque tradition. The fact that Vincenzo Grimani’s text—which deals with the politics of Ancient Rome—is easily one of the best and most powerful librettos that Händel ever set to music certainly helped.
The story, one of hunger for power and the lengths and depths that people are prepared to go to achieve it, is universal and extremely topical. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Presented in Italian, with English supertitles.
Shannon Paige Christie
Alice Del Simone
Christine Marie Li
Alaina de Bellevue
Properties Designer and Scenic Artist
Jennifer Melcher Galvin
Lighting and Scenic Designer / TD
Wig and Makeup Designer
Sarah Annette Opstad Demmon
Head Vocal Coach
Assistant Technical Director