Georg Friedrich Händel
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam
Jan Willem de Vriend
Rome, 54 Ad
When the Emperor Claudius is reported to have drowned, his wife Agrippina plots to have Nerone, her son by a previous marriage, succeed him. Nerone agrees to her scheme. She enlists the aid of Pallante and Narcissus, promising her exclusive love to each of them in exchange for their support. In front of the Capitol, Agrippina announces the death of Claudius, while Pallante and Narcissus urge Nerone’s appointment. Agrippina’s plan appears successful until Claudius’ servant Lesbo arrives with news of the Emperor’s rescue. Ottone, who has heroically saved the Emperor, arrives at the Capitol and announc- es that Claudius has promised him the throne in gratitude for his valor.
Agrippina devises a new plan to deliver the throne to Nero, exploiting Ottone’s overwhelming love for Poppea. Knowing that Claudius also desires Poppea, Agrippina tells the young beauty that Ottone has ceded her to the Emperor in order to obtain the throne. She suggests that Poppea take revenge by convincing Claudius to revoke Ottone’s regal reward. Their plan is success- ful; in his fury, the Emperor deems Ottone a traitor and swears to rescind his promise of the throne. He continues to woo Poppea but is interrupted by Agrippina’s sudden arrival. Agrippina proclaims herself to be Poppea’s life-long friend.
Pallante and Narcissus discover that Agrippina has deceived them and they form an alliance. Ottone arrives for his confirma- tion as Emperor. Claudius enters heroically and Ottone reminds him of his promise, but the angry Claudius believes Ottone to be a traitor and turns him away. Ottone finds no compassion from Agrippina, Nerone or Poppea, and sinks into despair.
Seeing Ottone’s grief, Poppea begins to doubt his guilt. After discovering the truth, Poppea sees through Agrippina’s manipulations and swears vengeance. Meanwhile, Agrippina is tormented by the failure of her schemes. She plots with Pallante to murder Ottone and Narcissus, and with Narcissus to murder Ottone and Pallante. She tells Claudius that Ottone wants revenge for his loss of the throne and urges him to declare Nerone his successor. Claudius, impatient to go to Poppea, agrees.
Poppea develops a plan to right the injustice done to Ottone. They meet in her bedroom and she instructs Ottone to hide, just as Nerone - who also desires Poppea - arrives. Poppea persuades Nerone to conceal himself as well, explaining that his mother is about
to arrive. Lesbo sings about his grief over the situation. Claudius enters next and Poppea complains that he does not really love her. Claudius reminds her of Ottone’s punish- ment, which he executed to show his love for her, but Poppea protests that she was misunderstood, and that it was Nerone who had tried to take her away from the emperor. She then hides Claudius and calls Nerone, who continues to profess his ardour for her - this time with Claudius eavesdropping. Claudius emerges and orders Nerone to leave.
Poppea makes an excuse to send Claudius out of the room. Ottone returns and he and Poppea swear eternal fidelity. Nerone tells Agrippina what has transpired and asks for protection from Claudius, while Pallante and Narcissus inform Claudius of Agrippina’s conspiracy against him. Agrippina once again urges Claudius to crown Nerone. Claudius finally gives the throne to Nerone and unites Poppea and Ottone, to general rejoicing.
The performance practice of Händel opera’s in the 21st century: the staging
by Eva Buchmann
Agrippina’s libretto, written around 1709 by cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, deals with Tacitus’ Annales and Suetonius’ life of Claudius. With the exception of Lesbo the characters and their mutual affairs have a historic background, even though there are mishaps in the factual chronology of the events. The story is set in Rome at the court of Emperor Claudius, AD 54.
The librettist Grimani was in the service of Joseph I and wrote his libretto in times of great hostility between Pope Clemens XI and Emperor Joseph. He probably intended to make a satire on the pontifical court. Agrippina’s intrigues play a central role in this story. Agrippina tries to place her son Nerone on the throne. Since Roman emperors used to be appointed (the imperial title was not determined by heredity), she is forced to operate in an extremely manipulative way in order to achieve her goal. Power is what makes Agrippina tick, with promises of power and eroticism rewarded to the victor of this struggle. A cunning strategy is necessary, every avail- able dirty trick is employed. Gratefully she avails herself of the amoral behaviour of her entourage: with the exception of Ottone everybody is capable of lies, deceit, blackmail, corruption and adultery, as a consequence of which the characters tend to simulate half of the time. According to Agrippina ‘Pretence will get you where you want to be’.
In the course of the opera Agrippina lives through a diversity of emotions. Time and again she believes to have reached her goal, but then it turns out differently, or she becomes the victim of her own pros- pects. Yet she always recovers. Even when
every-one turns against her, and Poppea in fact manages to display a similar spirit of combativeness, Agrippina keeps going on and ultimately reaches her goal: Nerone becomes Emperor. The question is, however, is this ‘happy ending’ typical of the 18th century or was it meant to leave an aftertaste of cynicism... after all, the most evil of all was not even punished? At first the positive outcome may seem unconvincing to the listener, but it is interesting to find out whether it is, in the end, psychologically convincing. Händel’s opera conveys a cer- tain sense of stateliness, especially because of the many da capo arias characteristic of his work. In his lifetime performances were quite different from what they are now. Stages were much smaller, adorned with a number of painted prospects. The characters would come on stage from the wings, from the right or the left, in accordance with the status of the appearing character. Acting was liable to a number of strict rules: actors always used to address the audience, even when coming on stage via the side wings as well as during the dialogues. The standard position - originating in the dance - was not intended to be a true-to-life rendering, but was rather to be characterized by a spirit of ‘well-being’. Legs and feet, for example, were never to be parallel to one another, and were only to meet in an angle of 90o, with the weight resting on one leg. Many poses can be traced back to the art of painting. Acting basically consisted of smoothly connecting all poses together. Moreover, a good many rules originated from the court. Singers often found them- selves at the courts and were therefore acquainted with many of the prevailing rules. Hands were never to hang alongside the body, but were to rest in a number of poses provided for that purpose. The gestures were mainly fixed, on the other hand some gestures were determined according to the different affects. Motion was mainly provided by the recitatives, whereas the arias were intended mainly ‘for the ear’. Opposite characters would often leave the stage during an aria in order not to distract attention.
Furthermore in baroque opera there was this phenomenon called aparte. It concerns pieces of text written in brackets representing the thoughts going on in the mind of a person, and which are not to be heard by the characters, but which are actually interesting to the audience. For that purpose the singers would make a quarter of a turn sideways. The opera Agrippina is teeming with aparte’s because of all that insincerity going on. The characters utter a statement, subsequently revealing their real thought or character in the aparte.
It seemed interesting to me to juxtapose the styles of acting in Händel’s time and those of the 21st century for the production of this opera. This means that either one acting style depicts its own reality, thus noble acting for insincerity and realistic acting for everything representing sincere behaviour, but also the range of thought introduced in the aparte’s. Obviously in order to achieve the desirable effect of great contrasts both styles have to be magnified. Realistic acting means immediate acting, pure and natural, with a great sense of familiarity as far as daily reality is concerned; noble acting, however, is the magnified result of all the rules and elegance typical of Händel’s lifetime. As a whole Agrippina should turn out to be a production that fits in with the stately style of Händel’s opera on the one hand, and the performance practice of his time on the other, without losing sight of the liveliness, realism and psychology of contemporary theatre.
The performance practice of Händel opera’s in the 21st century: the Music
by Jan Willem de Vriend
The opera Agrippina by G.F. Händel can be considered a unique work, composed for the marvellous Venetian ‘Teatro di S. Giovanni Grisostom0’ by a 24-year-old youngster from Saxony. Händel already had a brilliantly thorough command of the Italian theatrical customs and traditions and was able to cast this in a unique mould, whimsically employing A-B-A forms as well as canzonettas or brief instrumental intermezzi. Occasionally bar structures are broken up or texts are put to music in a ‘wrong‘ way, intentionally. The libretto contains allegorical interpolations of current political affairs in Venice and Rome at the beginning of the 18th century. Another remarkable aspect of the work is that Händel, in comparison to operas composed later, makes more frequent use of recitatives in Agrippina and shorter arias, which contributes to the captivating tension of the plot and sense of theatrical drama. And then, there is, of course, the comical character of the work, which among other things manifests itself musically in the way the pearls of Poppea are given musical expression by the orchestra. Another example is the longwinded twaddle of Claudius in his initial aria, where he, seemingly eager to impress, makes enormous leaps over three octaves, the same goes for the pauses in Nerone’s moving aria, when he lets his people share in his wealth.
Agrippina met with extraordinary success, receiving 27 consecutive performances after the first on 26 December 1709, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of that opera house. A remarkable fact is that it was Johann Mattheson who performed Agrippina in Hamburg. Händel had had a blazing row with him once after a performance of his opera Cleopatra. During the
performance they became involved in a heated dispute concerning the way in which recitatives should be accompanied. Some residents of Hamburg must have recognized numerous parallels in the performance of Agrippina, especially when Händel draws
on the work of another successful Hamburg composer: Reinhard Keiser. Poppea’s first aria and first chorus consist of quotations from his work. There is also an orchestration technique typical of this colleague - the violins playing an octave above the bass line - which recurs in Agrippina. Händel also borrowed frequently from his own work. Agrippina was not paricularly successful in Hamburg, though, and Händel did not stage further performances of this opera during his lifetime. Possibly, the libretto used by Händel was very much a product of its age dealing with issues of topical interest, making any new performance of this opera no longer relevant.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries opera scores were considered a basic framework for a performance rather than a book of instruc- tions which was to be followed meticulously. The Kapellmeisters were consigned with the realization of the staging of the work and con- sequently had the task of adapting the score to the possibilities of the singers, theatre and orchestra. A strict adherence to the instructions in the score is in fact totally contradictory to the original performance practice of the 17th and 18th centuries. Obviously, Händel himself is a good example of this. For example, when preparing performances of his operas in London he reduced the number of recitatives because Londoners did not understand them anyway. Or he would (to the great amusement of Venetian as well as London audiences) include harpsichord cadenzas, or added, reworked or deleted arias at the last moment (as was the case with Agrippina among other works). This was sometimes necessary when suddenly replacements were taken on, when other machinery was employed and for reasons we would now find rather silly. In this regard we should also observe that perform- ances aiming to offer the highest possible degree of ‘authenticity’ by adhering meticu- lously to the score display a total disregard of the original spirit of the age.
Joseph Haydn was annoyed about the fact that instrumentalists were so lamentably ill-informed about what singers do and in his opinion “...instrumentalists should learn how to think singing...” According to Adam Hiller, his colleague, “well spoken is half sung.” It was therefore our aim to perform this opera in a way similar to what we know from many prints, i.e. an orchestra playing without a conductor, half turned to the theatre, half to the hall. In addition the instrumentalists should be fully involved in the story and be acquainted with the text and musicians should be playing ‘with their ears’ instead of just closely following the conductor. As mentioned above 17th and 18th century opera scores are not to be compared with those from the 20th century. The instructions are brief, with only the most necessary of notes concerning the orchestral scoring. There is no mention of the size of the orchestra, obviously it was adapted to the theatre where the performance took place. There are neither indications nor figures in the continuo part of the recitatives.
We decided on having two harpsichordists /organists, a chitarrone and a violoncello. The organ was basically chosen to be the repre- sentative voice of hierarchically leading charac- ters such as Agrippina and Claudius, underlining dramaturgically important moments for the listener. The harpsichords accompany swift dialogues while the chitarrone is used for the sincere and more gentle moments, the reason why it was assigned to represent Ottone almost everywhere.
Tempo indications are not given. Searching for the right tempi in sources dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries we often encountered most dubious information. Usually Quantz or Walther are quoted, which in our opinion merely conveys an overall image of the former possessing a questionable musical taste and the latter having a preference for ‘fresh’ and swift tempi. Incidentally, instructions
by Händel himself, e.g. as provided in Judas Maccabaeus (40, 40 and 25 minutes for Act I to III) or in salomon (50, 40 and 40 minutes for Act I to III) also raise several questions. This is so dreadfully fast that one might ask oneself whether it can be played at all. When we went on looking for connections linking parts of this oratorio with Agrippina (although there is a time gap of some forty years between
this oratorio and Agrippina) we came to the conclusion that musically speaking this was utter nonsense. Though we could establish the importance of motion in an aria, which is in fact a more vital aspect than tempo markings. The manner of notation is an important indication here. One could confidently dare to claim that a 3/2 time signature is more often applied in sorrowful arias and 3/4 for matters more lighted-hearted, while a signature of 3/8 is used in fragments which are meant to be funny. The general proposition is: the shorter the note duration, the more funny, light-heart- ed or high-spirited the aria usually is.
During Händel’s lifetime castratos were quite popular as singers and one could actually speak of them as being the first ‘stars’. The part of Nerone was originally written for a cas- trato. We had to choose between having this part sung by a female soprano or by a tenor, which would result in the whole of the part sounding an octave lower. For the credibility of the part on stage we finally opted for a tenor. And, in order not to disturb the musical dramaturgy with Ottone (he would otherwise rise above Nerone) we cast him with a high baritone and Claudius with a bass-baritone.