In 1707/08, Agrippina gave the young Handel his big chance to establish his reputation as an opera composer in Italy. The commission came from the famous Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice, which was funded by the influential Grimani family. It is possible that the libretto was written by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. The Venetians were extremely demanding when it came to music, but Handel succeeded in creating a wise, gripping and entertaining opera on the basis of the humorous libretto about lust for power and sexual desires in Ancient Rome. With rich instrumentation and a huge variety of musical forms including dance movements and ensembles alongside da capo arias, cavatinas, ariosi and accompagnato recitatives, plus melodies reminiscent of folksong and sophisticated bel canto, Handel showed his virtuosity as a composer. The success was overwhelming. John Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, reports that the audience “were thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style, for they had never known till then all the powers of harmony and modulation so closely arranged and forcibly combined”. Handel was rapturously cheered with the cry of “Viva il caro Sassone!” – “Long live the beloved Saxon!” His international career began.
Rome, 54 A.D. Agrippina is married to the Roman Emperor Claudio who is currently away on a crusade. When the rumour surfaces that he has been killed in battle, she tries to make her son Nerone, the result of an earlier liaison with another man, emperor. It turns out, however, that Claudio is not dead, but was saved by Ottone, one of his generals. Out of gratitude, Claudio has made him his heir. Consequently, there are now two heirs. The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that Claudio, Nerone and Ottone are all in love with the same woman: Poppea. Who will win the woman and the throne? Agrippina schemes, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. In the end, Ottone wins Poppea – for the time being – and Nerone is heir to the throne. But as we know from history and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea things are not going to remain this way for long.