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'Agrippina,' Handel's Unlikely Comedy

George Frideric Handel spent much of his long and successful operatic career writing Italian operas for eager, English audiences in London. But that's not where he made his first splash in the opera house.

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and wrote his first operas in Hamburg. But at the time, Italy was the place for opera, and that's where Handel wound up. He started out in Florence, in 1707, where he wrote an opera called Rodrigo. Then he moved on to Venice where he came up with Agrippina, a sort of odd-ball comedy, widely regarded as his first, true operatic masterpiece.

A quick look at the cast of characters in Agrippina would suggest anything but a comic opera. The story is set in ancient Rome, and its lineup includes the emperor Claudius, along with the whole raft of plotters and schemers who surrounded him. Agrippina was Claudius' fourth wife. She was the sister of the infamous emperor Caligula, who preceded Claudius. Agrippina was also the mother of another emperor, Nero, now famous for his fireside fiddling. And Nero took the throne after Claudius was assassinated — in a poisoning for which many blame Agrippina herself.

Still, Handel took these familiar characters, with all their sinister baggage, and somehow created a lighthearted opera in which the constant skulduggery seems so over the top that it really can't be taken seriously. He also blessed it 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.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Handel's Agrippina from the same city — and even the same theater! — where it was premiered in 1710. The production is by Venice's legendary opera company La Fenice, and comes to us from the historic Teatro Malibran.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.
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