Handel's 'Agrippina' fits seamlessly into modern times

Met Live in HD revivifies this ancient story of a mother's hungry power

by Laura Bulkin
Posted 2/26/20

Power plays, sexual politics, abuses of power, cults of personality played out for a fickle public -- it all sounds like a scene ripped from today's headlines. But George Frideric Handel's "Agrippina" premiered at the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice in 1709. Without changing a word, it fits right into a modern setting.

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Handel's 'Agrippina' fits seamlessly into modern times

Met Live in HD revivifies this ancient story of a mother's hungry power

Posted

Power plays, sexual politics, abuses of power, cults of personality played out for a fickle public -- it all sounds like a scene ripped from today's headlines. But George Frideric Handel's "Agrippina" premiered at the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice in 1709. Without changing a word, it fits right into a modern setting.

Sir David McVicar's production of the opera, with Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina and Harry Bicket conducting, comes to the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, this Saturday (Feb. 29), at 11 a.m.

The Taos Opera Guild hosts a breakfast at Doc Martin's restaurant prior to the opera that includes a preview talk. The breakfast begins at 8:30 a.m. and is open to the public, but reservations are required. Lunch, provided by Koko's Coffee and Deli, is available during intermission.

Sir David McVicar's production reframes the action of this black comedy to "the present," where it should loudly resonate. In addition to star mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as the controlling, power-hungry Agrippina, the all-star cast features mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Agrippina's son and future emperor Nerone; soprano Brenda Rae as the seductive Poppea; countertenor Iestyn Davies as the ambitious officer Ottone; and bass Matthew Rose as the weary emperor Claudius.

The production is presented as part of the Met Live in HD series. The series includes livestream performances, as well as backstage interviews with performers, directors, conductors and crew. It brings opera to 2,200 theaters in more than 70 countries worldwide.

The TCA Board President Kandace Nachtrab said that the Met Live in HD is the best ticket in town, with a close-up seat and behind-the-scenes interviews all at a great price. "The beauty of the Met Live in HD series is that if you are a season pass holder, like I am, you are exposed to operas that aren't household names," Nachtrab said. "Handel operas aren't like Verdi, Puccini, Rossini or even Mozart, and I am really excited to experience 'Agrippina' this Saturday.

"Handel, Glass and other composers' operas are less often performed but no less important. I love the Live in HD series so much because it is a prescribed list of operas that are offered at the TCA and each is completely unique. What intrigues me is sometimes the lead singers, or the conductor or even the set designer. 'Akhnaten,' for example, had the most gorgeous costumes and unusual actions. Each opera has its special appeal, and with the Met at the TCA one has the added advantage of interviews with cast members, directors, conductors -- even members of the crew that changes sets between scenes.

"In addition, the Taos Opera Guild preview talks, presented at breakfast before each opera, provide invaluable background information about the opera.

'Agrippina' has a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani," continued Nachtrab. "The opera tells the tale of Agrippina, mother of Nero, as she plots the downfall of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the installation of her son as emperor. Grimani's libretto, considered one of the best that Handel set, is an 'anti-heroic satirical comedy,' full of topical political allusions. There is speculation that it reflects Grimani's political and diplomatic rivalry with Pope Clement XI.

"Handel composed 'Agrippina' at the end of a three-year stay in Italy. Listeners praised the quality of the music -- much of which, in keeping with the contemporary custom, had been borrowed and adapted from other works. Despite the clear public enthusiasm for the work, Handel did not promote further stagings."

DiDonato gave these remarks to "Playbill" about her character, Agrippina, and the production: "Agrippina is a mother, a power-hungry mother whose son can do no wrong. He perhaps isn't the brightest bulb in the socket, but she's on a mission to make him emperor, and she will go to any ends and pay any cost to make that happen. She's manipulative, she's wicked, she's impatient. In our production, she might have a drinking problem. And what we have in the end is one of Handel's most creative, clever and ironic approaches into opera. I think it's going to surprise everybody who comes to see it."

DiDonato continued, "A lot of people believe that perhaps the arts shouldn't be political. But we have all these compositions that were written by the greatest composers in the last centuries that are ultimately, undeniably political. The beauty of that is that politicians haven't changed, politics haven't changed and greed and the hunger for power at any cost is still with us in 2020.

"So we're dealing with a very modern opera. We're dealing with the sense that people want to put other people into power to elevate themselves, because we always want to be close to the source of power. 'Agrippina' is a story of greed, of people being in the seat of power who have no business being there. And they pay the price."

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