- 27 Giu 2012
“Agrippina” (HWV 6) is an opera seria in three acts by Georg Friedrick Händel, from a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. Composed for the 1709–10 Venice Carnevale season, the opera tells the story of Agrippina, the 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. Some analysts believe that it reflects the rivalry of Grimani with Pope Clement XI.
Händel composed “Agrippina” at the end of a three-year visit to Italy. It premiered in Venice at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo on 26 December 1709, and was an immediate success. From its opening night it was given a then-unprecedented run of 27 consecutive performances, and received much critical acclaim. Observers were full of praise for the quality of the music—much of which, in keeping with the contemporary custom, had been borrowed and adapted from other works, including some from other composers. Despite the evident public enthusiasm for the work, Handel did not promote further stagings. There were occasional productions in the years following its premiere but, when Handel’s operas fell out of fashion in the mid-18th century, it and his other dramatic works were generally forgotten.
In the 20th century, Handelian opera began a revival which, after productions in Germany, saw “Agrippina” premiered in Britain and in America. In recent years performances of the work have become more common, with innovative stagings at the New York City Opera and the London Coliseum in 2007. Modern critical opinion is that “Agrippina” is Händel’s first operatic masterpiece, full of freshness and musical invention which have made it one of the most popular operas of the continuing Händel revival.
Handel’s earliest opera compositions, in the German style, date from his Hamburg years, 1704–06, under the influence of Johann Mattheson. In 1706 he travelled to Italy where he remained for three years, learning the Italian style of music and developing his compositional skills. Initially he stayed in Florence where he was introduced to Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, and where his first Italian opera was composed and performed. This was Rodrigo (1707, original title Vincer se stesso ê la maggior vittoria), in which the Hamburg and Mattheson influences remained prominent. The opera was not particularly successful, but was part of Handel’s process of learning to compose opera in the Italian style and to set Italian words to music.
After Florence, Handel spent time in Rome, where the performance of opera was forbidden by Papal decree, and in Naples. He was able to apply himself to the composition of cantata and oratorio; at that time there was little difference (apart from increasing length) between cantata, oratorio and opera, which are all based on the alternation of secco recitative and aria da capo. Works from this period include Dixit Dominus, and the dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, written in Naples. While in Rome, Handel had become acquainted with Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, probably through Alessandro Scarlatti. The Cardinal was a distinguished diplomat who wrote libretti in his spare time, and acted as an unofficial theatrical agent for the Italian royal courts. He made Handel his protégé, and gave him his libretto for Agrippina. It has been surmised that Handel took the libretto to Naples where he set it to music. However, according to John Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, it was written very rapidly after Handel’s arrival in Venice in November 1709. This theory is supported by the autograph manuscript’s Venetian paper. Grimani arranged to present the opera in Venice, at his family-owned theatre, the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, as part of the 1709–10 Carnevale season. A similar story had been used before, as the subject of Monteverdi’s 1642 opera L’incoronazione di Poppea, but Grimani’s libretto centred on Agrippina, a character who does not appear in Monteverdi’s darker version. This was Handel’s second Italian opera, and probably his last composition in Italy.
In composing the opera Handel borrowed extensively from his earlier oratorios and cantatas, and from other composers including Reinhard Keiser, Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Baptiste Lully. This adapting and borrowing was common practice at the time, but its extent in Agrippina is greater than in almost all the composer’s other major dramatic works. The overture, which is a French-style two-part work with a “thrilling” allegro, and all but five of the vocal numbers, are based on earlier works, in many cases after significant adaptation and reworking.
Examples of recycled material include Pallas’s “Col raggio placido”, which is based on Lucifer’s aria from “La resurrezione” (1708), “O voi dell’ Erebo”, which was itself adapted from Reinhard Keiser’s 1705 opera Octavia. Agrippina’s aria “Non hò cor che per amarti” was taken, almost entirely unadapted, from “Se la morte non vorrà” in Handel’s earlier dramatic cantata Qual ti reveggio, oh Dio (1707); Narcissus’s “Spererò” is an adaptation of “Sai perchè” from another 1707 cantata, Clori, Tirsi e Fileno; and parts of Nero’s Act 3 aria “Come nube che fugge dal vento” are borrowed Handel’s oratorio Il trionfo del tempo (all from 1707). Later, some of “Agrippina”‘s music was used by Handel in his London operas Rinaldo (1711) and the 1732 version of “Acis and Galatea”, in each case with little or no change. The first music by Handel heard in London may have been Agrippina’s “Non hò che”, transposed into Alessandro Scarlatti’s opera Pirro è Dimitrio which was performed in London on 6 December 1710. The Agrippina overture and other arias from the opera appeared in pasticcios performed in London between 1710 and 1714, with additional music provided by other composers. Echoes of “Ti vo’ giusta” (one of the few arias composed specifically for Agrippina) can be found in the air “He was despised”, from Handel’s Messiah (1742).
Two of the main male roles, Nero and Narcissus, were written for castrati, the “superstars of their day” in Italian opera. The opera was revised significantly before and possibly during its run. For example, in Act III Handel originally had Otho and Poppaea sing a duet, “No, no, ch’io non apprezzo”, but he was dissatisfied with the music and replaced the duet with two solo arias before the first performance. Again, during the run Poppaea’s aria “Ingannata” was replaced with another of extreme virtuosity,”Pur punir chi m’ha ingannata”, either to emphasise Poppaea’s new-found resolution at this juncture of the opera or, as is thought more likely, to flatter Scarabelli by giving her further opportunity to show off her vocal abilities.
The instrumentation for Handel’s score follows closely that of all his early operas, and consists of two recorders, two oboes, two trumpets, three violins, two cellos, viola, timpani, contrabassoon and harpsichord. By the later standards of Händel’s London operas this scoring is light, but there are nevertheless what Dean and Knapp describe as “moments of splendour when Händel applies the full concerto grosso treatment.”
Grimani’s libretto avoids the “moralizing” tone of the later opera seria libretti written by acknowledged masters such as Metastasio and Zeno. The favourable reception given to the opera may, according to critic Donald Jay Grout, owe much to Grimani’s work in which “irony, deception and intrigue pervade the humorous escapades of its well-defined characters.” All the main characters, with the sole exception of Claudius’s servant Lesbus, are historical, and the broad outline of the libretto draws heavily upon Tacitus’s Annals and Suetonius’ Life of Claudius. It has been suggested that the comical, amatory character of the Emperor Claudius is a caricature of Pope Clement XI, to whom Grimani was politically opposed. Certain aspects of this conflict are also reflected in the plot: the rivalry between Nero and Otho mirror aspects of the debate over the War of the Spanish Succession, in which Grimani supported the Habsburgs, and Pope Clement XI France and Spain.
The date of “Agrippina”‘s first performance, about which there was at one time some uncertainty, has been confirmed by a manuscript newsletter as 26 December 1709. The cast consisted of some of Northern Italy’s leading singers of the day, including Antonio Carli in the lead bass role; Margherita Durastanti, who had recently sung the role of Mary Magdalene in Händel’s “La resurrezione”; and Diamante Scarabelli, whose great success at Bologna in the 1697 pasticcio “Perseo” inspired the publication of a volume of eulogistic verse entitled “La miniera del Diamante”.
“Agrippina” proved extremely popular, and established Händel’s international reputation. Its original run was for 27 performances, extraordinarily long for that time. Händel’s biographer John Mainwaring wrote of the first performance: “The theatre at almost every pause resounded with shouts of Viva il caro Sassone! (‘Long live the beloved Saxon!’) They were thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style, for they had never known till then all the powers of harmony and modulation so closely arranged and forcibly combined.” Many others recorded overwhelmingly positive responses to the work. Between 1713 and 1724 there were productions of Agrippina in Naples, Hamburg, and Vienna, although Handel himself never revived the opera after its initial run. The Naples production included additional music by Francesco Mancini.
Della Jones (13 April 1946), is a Welsh soprano, particularly well known for her interpretations of works by Händel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Britten.
Della Jones was born in Tonna, near Neath, Wales. She studied at the Royal College of Music, where she won the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship, and later in Geneva, where she made her professional debut in 1970, as Feodor and Olga.
She joined the English National Opera in 1977 where she created the role of Dolly in Iain Hamilton’s Anna Karenina in 1981, and the Royal Opera House in 1983, and began appearing abroad notably in France, Italy, and the United States.
Her repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary works, with a specialty in the bel canto operas, notably of Rossini. In the mid 1970s. she began a long association with Opera Rara, appearing in many long forgotten bel canto works, both on stage and on recording. She can be heard in complete recordings of Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi, L’assedio di Calais, Maria Padilla, Meyerbeer’s Il crociato in Egitto and Rossini’s Ricciardo e Zoraide and made a solo album with the title Della Jones sings Donizetti, in all of which one can appreciate her impeccable coloratura technique and strong feeling for words and music.
For Chandos records she also made albums such as Great Operatic Arias – Della Jones.
Della Jones is still at home in the international opera and concert world today. She currently lives in South-East England.