Skullduggery vs. Satire, in Handel's 'Agrippina'

WOO-Agrippina-250George 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 on his way to England. He started out in Florence, in 1707, where he wrote an opera called Rodrigo. Then he moved on to Venice, where he composed 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, and 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 only 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 created an opera in which the constant conniving seems so over that top that it really can't be taken seriously -- or at least not quite. He also blessed it with some of his finest music, stirring up a fascinating, underlying tension that keeps the story compelling, yet never truly blunts the opera's overall, satirical impact.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Handel's Agrippina from the Grand Liceu Theater in Barcelona, in a production featuring brilliant performances by mezzo-sopranos Sarah Connolly and Malena Ernman as Agrippina and Nero, and led by conductor Harry Bicket.