Agrippina, Nero’s mother. Now there’s a subject for a black comedy. Or a satirical opera.
At 10:55 a.m. Saturday, The MET Live in HD will live stream Handel’s grim-but-fluffy opera “Agrippina” in the Vallecito Room at Fort Lewis College.
In 1709, Handel’s opera about Roman shenanigans was tossed together quickly. His goal was to open in time for the popular Venetian winter carnival. By coincidence, the 2020 carnival may or may not go on. It’s contingent, of course, on the spread of the coronavirus.
While in Italy, Handel had acquired several influential patrons, including a few Roman Catholic cardinals. His dark political opera opened in Cardinal Grimani’s own theater, and according to contemporary records, it was a huge success. Sophisticated Venetians relished the cynical tone and outright irony attached to a true story of ancient Roman families.
The opera is titled “Agrippina” because she orchestrated the bumpy rise to power of her nutty, narcissistic son.
Historically, Agrippina married three times. Nero was a product of her first marriage, and apparently, that husband died naturally. She poisoned her next two husbands, including the Roman Emperor Claudius, who happened to be her uncle. Somehow, everybody was connected to the big guy, Caesar Augustus.
From the beginning of her third marriage, Agrippina badgered Claudius to name Nero his successor. It meant denying his own son, Brittanicus, natural succession. Yes, she was a piece of work.
History also records that she poisoned Claudius, but the opera ends on a different and happier note. A tangle of love triangles eventually reset. Claudius remains alive and names Nero as heir to the throne. At the end, the goddess Juno arrives with a universal blessing on the whole corrupt business.
The Met production has been updated with modern costumes and a sleek contemporary set. The Emperor Claudius (bass Matthew Rose) can be seen practicing his golf swing. Black cocktail dresses also give away the contemporary mood.
The Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb has said: “’Agrippina’ is a dark comedy about the corrupt leaders of ancient Rome, who lie and manipulate in their quest to stay in power.” Interpret that as you wish.
The brilliant mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the title role. Another mezzo, Kate Lindsey, cunningly portrays Nero (Nerone in the Italian text). Other figures in the Roman hierarchy fill out the court of intrigue.
In 2000, Sir David McVicar’s staging seemed fresh, and it may well be an evergreen satire for election year 2020. Judge for yourself.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.