This month, Agrippina, Handel’s dark satire of the Roman Empire, has its first-ever Met performances. In a scathingly trenchant new production by Sir David McVicar, Joyce DiDonato stars as the scheming title empress, determined to outsmart her rivals and put her son Nero on the throne. She recently spoke with the Met’s Matt Dobkin about how politics and power—for better or worse—never go out of style.
This production marks the Met premiere of Agrippina. So, for our audiences who may not be familiar with the story, who is this woman exactly?
Agrippina is a mother, a power-hungry mother whose son can do no wrong. He perhaps isn’t the brightest bulb in the socket, but she’s on a mission to make him emperor, and she will go to any ends and pay any cost to make that happen. She’s manipulative, she’s wicked, she’s impatient. In our production, she might have a drinking problem. And what we have in the end is one of Handel’s most creative, clever, and ironic approaches into opera. I think it’s going to surprise everybody who comes to see it.
How would you describe the score for Agrippina, versus some of Handel’s other operas?
There are a lot of interesting creative elements to this score that vary from something like, say, Ariodante or Alcina. It is one of Handel’s most inventive pieces, and we see him, as in Giulio Cesare, really going into black comedy. He uses a lot of recitative, because there’s a lot of text, a lot of plot, lots happening, miscalculations, a lot of deception—and that information has to come across. The surprising thing is that there are a lot of continuo arias, which make this piece quite intimate. And these arias, instead of being long expositions that last 12 minutes as in other Handel operas, sort of pass by very quickly because the next plot point is coming. So we’re in a different sound world that’s constantly shifting and changing as the story just flies by.
At the Met, you’ve only sung snippets of Handel as part of the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island. But I know he’s core to your rep…
Handel has been such a central part of my career, primarily in Europe, so I love the challenge now of surprising the audience with this character who is very different from what I have played at the Met before. The thing I love about Handel is that he gives such psychological scope to these very complex characters. And because the music is composed as it is, it gives us time to help sort through the machinations that are happening and the psychology of getting from point A to point B when nothing is going well, and that’s the case with Agrippina.
It seems like David McVicar is really aiming to highlight the story’s parallels to today’s world.
A lot of people believe that perhaps the arts shouldn’t be political. But we have all these compositions that were written by the greatest composers in the last centuries that are ultimately, undeniably political. The beauty of that is that politicians haven’t changed, politics haven’t changed, and greed and the hunger for power at any cost is still with us in 2020. So we’re dealing with a very modern opera. We’re dealing with the sense that people want to put other people into power to elevate themselves, because we always want to be close to the source of power. Agrippina is a story of greed, of people being in the seat of power who have no business being there. And they pay the price.