By all rights, Agrippina should be a tragedy. It begins with news of Claudius' death and ends with a roll call of doom, with political intrigue, power struggles, infidelity and dysfunction filling in the blanks. The Roman Empire is rife with opera fodder, and operas are rife with tales of Greek gods and Roman heroes (and anti-heroes). Characters behaving badly make for an irresistible story line, and when it's based on history, all the better. Handel's Agrippina is full of these characters, each with his or her own weakness. Taken historically, the tale of Agrippina the Younger, wife of the Emperor Claudius, is a tragic one, and yet Handel has made it into a satirical comedy. It is this juxtaposition of tragic content and comedic treatment that makes Agrippina such a delight.

Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera © 2011
Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera
© 2011

It begins with news of Claudio's demise at sea. With political aspirations of her own, Claudio's wife Agrippina wastes no time in setting up her son Nerone as her puppet Emperor. To do this, she enlists the help of Pallas and Narciso. She approaches them individually, promising them her favors (political and otherwise) if they help her campaign. Nerone, who shows little promise of being anything more than a freeloading ne'er-do-well, acquiesces to his mother's wish and accepts the crown. Before the crown is on Nerone's head, however, a servant arrives with the news that Claudio is not dead. He was saved by Ottone, who was granted the throne by Claudio in gratitude for saving his life. This does not fit in with Agrippina's plans, but she has not yet begun scheming in earnest. Ottone unwisely confides in Agrippina that he is in love with Poppea, the mistress of Claudio. Agrippina convinces Poppea that Ottone was given the throne in exchange for denouncing Poppea and giving her to Claudio. She believes the lie and, at Agrippina's urging, tells a lie of her own to Claudio. Ottone is then reviled by all and denounced as a traitor. Nerone's path to the throne is clear... except that Poppea begins to doubt that Ottone is guilty. Pretending to talk in her sleep, she bemoans Agrippina's claim that Ottone has given her up for power (which she will do to him later, but that's another story). Ottone denies all, proclaiming his love for her. The plot unravels and Agrippina, becoming more and more desperate, schemes anew. Poppea, in the meantime, plots her own course to victory – a course involving three men (Ottone, Nerone and Claudio) taking turns through her bedroom like a Roman glockenspiel. Exposing Nerone's dabauchery, Poppea clears Ottone and Claudio again pronounces him successor to the throne. Nerone, he says, must marry Poppea. Ottone and Nerone agree to trade, and all are happy (for now). History will not be kind to any of them.

Boston Lyric Opera's Agrippina, originally produced for Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera, relies heavily on physical humor and excellent acting. The characters are strong and, while not all likeable, very engaging. The costuming adds visual clues to who these people are, but their real individuality comes through in their music, vocal type and stage presence.

There is some danger of turning Agrippina into a Disney-inspired villain. She's a jealous seductress, hungry for power. She dresses and acts the part of a woman who, while granted no actual power, is used to pulling the puppet strings. She uses any means necessary to get what she wants. No one is safe from her manipulation, least of all her son, Nerone.

Nerone is her son from a previous marriage. From his first notes, we see that he is ill-equipped to be Emperor. The role, originally sung by a soprano castrato, was performed by a countertenor. The high vocal range, coming from the entitled and spoiled adolescent Nerone, is comic genius. Every time Nerone opens his mouth, the sound is surprising and delightful. Using a countertenor for Nerone is accurate for the age of the historical Nero, but more importantly, it's a part of Handel's wit. The sound that comes out every time he speaks (sings) is so unlike an Emperor. Nerone brings laughs nearly every time he sings. Paired with excellent acting and deft stage direction, Nerone is a bundle of comedic gold.


Pallante and Narciso, who have political aspirations of their own, are both in love with Agrippina. They are easily led into deceit, desperately wanting what Agrippina promises them. Although they are after the same thing, and should rightly be in competition with each other, they come as a pair, tripping over and playing off each other throughout the opera. When it dawns on them that they have been played, they join forces in hopes of countering the powerhouse of feminine domination that runs through the story.

It is two women who guide and shape the story: Agrippina and Poppea. Poppea is not as transparently power-hungry as Agrippina, although history would claim otherwise. In this story, she is a woman in love. Her scheming comes about because she has been tricked. She is manipulated by Agrippina in Act 2, and shown as a sympathetic character. She has been wronged, according to Agrippina, and her desire is to right the wrong. Her heart deserves better and her wickedness is in response to the alleged faithlessness of Ottone. The interaction of Agrippina and Poppea in Act 2 is some of the funniest in the opera, with Poppea stealing the show if not the crown. When the truth is revealed, her wrath is redirected, making her a very dangerous opponent. Her three suitors, Claudio, Nerone and Ottone, see Poppea as a thing of beauty and nothing more. They are mistaken.

In Boston Lyric Opera's production of Agrippina, Kathleen Kim elevates the role of Poppea. Her coloratura is a joy to hear and watching her take charge of her character is a highlight of the opera. I recently watched her in New York as Chiang Ch'ing in the Met's Nixon in China and was glad for the opportunity to see her again. In recordings of Nixon in China, Madame Mao was a strong presence, but not the whirlwind force I witnessed in Kim's performance. Likewise, in Agrippina she takes the stage and owns the audience.

Her heart's love, Ottone, is the only truly sympathetic character in Agrippina. He has saved Claudio, been given the throne and risked all for love (he unwisely confides to Agrippina his fear that he can never wed Poppea). As his reward, he is denounced as a traitor and reviled by all. Like Nerone, Ottone is a countertenor, which lends his role sweetness and sincerity. He is a young man unabashedly in love – a welcome emotional anchor in a sea of manipulation and deception.

From Claudio, Emperor and baritone, we expect an element of gravitas. Instead, we have a man who is easily manipulated by the women around him. What's more, he doesn't seem to mind. He seems content with the path of least resistance, letting himself be managed by his servant Lesbo and granting favors in return for peace. He agrees to name Nerone as his successor because Agrippina will not give up. He is not up for the battle of which she is clearly capable. Because we expect him to act like an Emperor, the role of Claudio is a delightful surprise. He is more competent than the duo of Pallante and Narciso, but barely.

Most of the action is behind closed doors – a look at the inner workings of an empire. A silent chorus moves through the action, wearing black costumes and gold masks. They appear around corners and in doorways, lurking in the shadows and providing visual commentary. They are ever-present, often felt more than seen. They are in turns funny and ominous.

Much of the comedy is physical, making the subtitles mostly unnecessary. It's nice to check in on them from time to time, but there is so much to see on the stage, you don't want to miss a thing. The music and the antics speak clearly, whether or not one is fluent in Italian. The music, played by a beyond-competent Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra and five-piece continuo group of period instruments, is magnificent. It is relentlessly light-hearted, continuing merrily along in stark contrast to the sinister plans in progress. Harpsichord, theorbo, and virginals join recorder, strings, oboe, bassoon, trumpet and timpani to create a lyrical framework. Where the set is simple and soaring, the orchestra is ornate and delicate. It fills in cracks and sweeps in and around the debauchery and deceit, unphased by the trickery on stage.

Overall, Agrippina was a delightful surprise. Comic operas are not always as funny as one hopes, but this exceeded all expectations. It began well and gained momentum with each act, until the audience was laughing out loud and on its feet applauding at the end. I noticed some empty seats after the first intermission and can't help but be sorry for the people who missed a wonderful performance.