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Soprano Jane Redding, left, as Poppea; tenor Jeffrey Halili, as Nerone; and soprano Sujung Kim in the title role of Virginia Opera's premiere production of George Frideric Handel's
Soprano Jane Redding, left, as Poppea; tenor Jeffrey Halili, as Nerone; and soprano Sujung Kim in the title role of Virginia Opera's premiere production of George Frideric Handel's "Agrippina." The production's serious story is being played for humor. (By Anne M. Peterson)

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Thursday, February 8, 2007

German-born composer George Frideric Handel was 24 when his opera "Agrippina" made its debut in Venice near the end of 1709.

He had been studying in Rome, and local history inspired him and librettist Vincenzo Grimani to draw the plot for their new opera from historical accounts of the first-century reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius.

Handel wasn't alone among European composers who spent time in Italy learning his art. The country was considered unrivaled in its resources for musicians aiming to sharpen their skills.

The strategy worked for the young German. "Agrippina" was popular in its time and was considered a fine example of the opera seria style. The work helped to solidify Handel's reputation in Europe as a composer.

The story begins with the Empress Agrippina receiving word that her husband, Claudius (here called Claudio), has been drowned at sea. The cunning queen wastes no time setting in motion a conspiracy to install her teenage son from a previous marriage, Nerone (you know him as Nero, he of later fiddling fame), on her dead husband's throne.

The plot proceeds apace, and the Roman Senate is preparing to recognize Nerone as top toga when Claudius's servant arrives with the news that the emperor has been saved from the briny depths by the Roman General Ottone, whom a grateful Claudio has named as his successor.

Not about to have her plan thwarted by such technicalities, Agrippina devises a new plot to set Ottone and Claudio against each other by manipulating the affections of the friends and of Poppea, a Roman beauty whom the empress knows the two men secretly covet.

The intrigues, revelations, schemes and counter-schemes that lead to the opera's conclusion could put a night-time television drama writer's head in a spin.

A serious opera played for laughs, the Virginia Opera company's staging of Agrippina is also evidence of the adage that good things come to those who wait: The production, conducted by Peter Mark with stage direction by Lillian Groag, is the first in the commonwealth, coming not quite 300 years after that initial successful run in Venice.

-- C. WOODROW IRVIN

The Center for the Arts is at 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Tickets for "Agrippina" are $86, $72 and $44 tomorrow and $90, $76 and $48 Sunday. A wine and cheese tasting will be at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow, prior to the performance. 703-993-278 orhttp://www.gmu.edu/cfa.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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