Handel: Overture to Agrippina

In the context of baroque and Classical music, where a composer’s country of origin is strongly identified with their compositional style, George Frideric Handel is a rare chimera of musical identity. Although he was German and first worked in Halle and Hamburg, he eventually settled in London and became a naturalized British subject. Even more than his citizenship, the enduring popularity of his English oratorios, numbering seventeen in total and including the ubiquitous Messiah, sets him apart as a particularly relateable figure to English-language audiences.

But before he finally settled on his British identity, Handel tried on Italianness for size. He spent three years in Italy before settling in London in 1710. While there, he met Italian composers about whom more will be said for other selections on this program, and used the time to learn one of the most popular and lucrative genres of the day: the Italian opera. He produced operas in Florence and Venice, as well as sacred music in Rome, since opera was banned there– and seeing as an entire class of characters exists in the operas Handel would go on to write popularly referred to as “sex-kitten” roles, perhaps the Papal State was justified in its caution!

Agrippina was the last opera that Handel wrote and produced while in Italy, though it was far from his last Italian opera; at least for the first little while, he found that London had just as great an appetite for the genre. It was his first major operatic success: a satirical romp through the various corrupt, libidinous, greedy, and downright depraved characters surrounding the young not-yet-Emperor Nero, his scheming mother Agrippina, and briefly-presumed-dead father Claudius. Although most of the characters are certainly the type of person you’d cross the street to avoid, Handel’s music humanizes all of them with arias portraying events from their point of view.

That all of the schemers end up being somewhat lovable deepens the political context of the opera. The libretto was by Vincenzo Grimani, a Habsburg cardinal whose role in the Church mainly involved political sparring with the Pope. The Claudius of Agrippina is a suspiciously Pope-like character, surrounded with a suspiciously Vatican-like entourage of schemers, slackers and sycophants. That the resolution of the opera features Claudius naming Nero as his successor is, perhaps, a stronger statement when coupled with the audience’s knowledge of Nero’s eventual brutality, debauchery and suicide.

The music in Agrippina is representative of an entire era of Handel’s output, in part because it contains significant portions of Handel’s previous output. Out of the fifty-five separate pieces in Agrippina, fifty can be identified as borrowing from previous works. Far from the accusation of plagiarism that we might level at him today, Handel’s borrowing was neither unusual among Baroque composers nor lazy; in fact, references to music that the audience would already have known made up part of the humour and irony of the opera. The French-style overture in two parts, with an emphasis on the oboe as a solo instrument, sets the stage for the power-hungry Agrippina to receive the new that her husband is presumed dead, and set in motion the tangle of ambition of the opera.