Agrippina is one of Handel’s earliest operas. In the new edition it becomes clear how much the composer re-used existing material ... and yet how successful it is as a whole. The edition will be used for the first time at the Handel Festival in Göttingen.
In 1706 George Frideric Handel travelled to Italy for further studies in the art of composition. There he wrote his first two Italian operas – Rodrigo, performed in autumn 1707 at the Teatro di Via Cocomero in Florence, and Agrippina, with which the Venetian carnival was opened in the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo on 26 December 1709. With Agrippina he celebrated his first major success, and demonstrated that in Italy he had rapidly and thoroughly assimilated the modern operatic style. His biographer John Mainwaring reported 27 performances by February 1710 and an enthusiastic reception by the public. Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani is thought to have written the libretto, but the attribution is not certain. The commission to Handel for Agrippina must, however, have come from Giovanni Carlo or his brother Vincenzo Grimani, for the theatre in which the work was performed was under their directorship and belonged to the Grimani family.
The plot of the opera is set in Rome in the year 50 AD. Agrippina’s aim in life is to see her only son Nerone from her first marriage to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus on the Roman throne. However, her second husband Claudio had already promised this to Ottone, the person who saved his life. Both of the heirs apparent love Poppea. After all sorts of intrigues, all the protagonists get exactly what they most dearly desire: Nerone becomes Emperor, and Poppea and Ottone get married. Giunione descends with her retinue and concludes the opera with a lieto fine, or happy ending.
A large part of the music comes from Handel’s works composed earlier in Italy. Some of these were heavily reworked, but some were used with just slight alterations. However, Handel was a master at adapting the music to suit the new dramatic context perfectly. In the opera many of his most brilliant musical ideas from the period 1707 to 1709 are united. After he had finished the composition, he made alterations, most of them before the premiere. The role of Poppea was particularly strongly affected in the first two acts, where he reduced the technical demands, perhaps after he had heard the singer Diamante Maria Scarabelli in Antonio Lotti’s opera, but perhaps another scoring was originally planned. Later, however, after performances began, he substituted the simpler aria no. 31, “Ingannata” for the virtuoso “Per punir”, Anh. I, no. 31a. Conceivably Scarabelli was substituted at short notice by another performer. A change of singers is indicated in one of the Venetian copies of the score: for the role of Agrippina, Elena Croci Vivani, a soprano from Bologna, was listed instead of Margherita Durastanti. Either this was a mistake and Elena Croci replaced Scarabelli, or there was a further re-scoring. Agrippina was performed until the beginning of February 1710.
The edition by John E. Sawyer published as part of the Halle Handel Edition offers the version from the premiere, the discarded versions, and the alterations adopted during the season. The autograph manuscript of the opera, written on Venetian paper, survives almost complete. Only the overture and the first folio of Act I are missing. A conducting score has not survived, but there are three copies which reflect most of the later alterations which Handel made in the work. The libretto from the premiere contains references to four ballet movements. In the summary of the act, which is found between the Argomento and the beginning of the first act, after “Atto Terzo” follow the instructions “BALLI / Di Tedeschi. / Di Giardinieri. / Di Cavalieri, e Dame”, and the libretto text contains the instruction “Segue il Ballo di Deità seguaci di Giunone” at the end of Guinone’s aria. The music of the dances has not survived, but we can assume that Handel once again used the ballet music from Rodrigo. Therefore, at the end of the opera, the volume includes an editorial suggestion with music from Rodrigo (HHA II/2).
(aus [t]akte 1/2015 – translation: Elizabeth Robinson)