Agrippina Synopsis

The Story of Handel's 3-Act Opera

Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel
Portrait of Georg Friedrich Hände. Balthasar Denner /Wikimedia Commons

The three-act opera, Agrippina was composed by  George Frideric Handel and premiered on December 26, 1709, at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice, Italy. The opera tells the story of Agrippina as she schemes to get her son, Nero, to take over the throne from the Roman Emperor Claudius. Below is a synopsis of the three acts. ​

Agrippina, ACT 1

Agrippina receives a letter informing her that her husband, Emperor Claudius, has died in a terrible shipwreck caused by severe storms. Without hesitation, she quickly rushes to her son Nero, her child from a previous marriage, and tells him that the opportunity for him to take the emperor's throne has finally arrived. Nero seems much less enthused about this news than his mother, but he obeys her wishes. Agrippina sends a notice to two men, Pallas and Narcissus - both have confessed their love to her in the past, but are unaware of each other. She meets with both men separately, and asks in exchange for her love, for them to present Nero as the new emperor to the senate. Both men agree without giving a second thought, and they present Nero to the senate.

When everything is settled and Agrippina escorts Nero to the throne, the ceremony is immediately halted when Emperor Claudius' servant, Lesbus, bursts into the room shouting that the Emperor still lives. Lesbus tells everyone that the commander of the army, Otho, valiantly saved Claudius' life. In fact, because of this heroic feat, Claudius promised Otho that he could ascend to the throne. When Otho arrives, he confirms what Lesbus has told everyone. Agrippina, dumbstruck by the news, pulls Otho aside and asks him to explain. He tells her in secret that he is more in love with Poppaea than the throne. A new idea sparks in Agrippina's mind. She knows that Claudius also loves Poppaea, so she devises a plan to use this as her advantage to ensure Nero's claim to the throne.

Agrippina makes her way to Poppaea's home. While meeting with Poppaea, she learns that Poppaea loves Otho deeply. Agrippina schemingly tells Poppaea that Otho has bartered his love for her to Claudius in order to receive the throne. When asked for advice, Agrippina tells Poppaea to tell Claudius that Otho has commanded her to refuse Claudius' overtures. Agrippina hopes this will throw Claudius into a fit of rage and revoke his promise to Otho. Poor Poppaea falls for Agrippina's trickery, and when Claudius arrives at her home, she explains to him what Otho has done. Everything goes according to Agrippina's plan, and Claudius leaves the house furious.

Agrippina, ACT 2

After finding out of Agrippina's deceit, Pallas and Narcissus decide to join together and withdraw their support for her and Nero. When Otho arrives at the coronation, he is obviously nervous. His arrival is followed by Agrippina, Nero, and Poppaea, who wish to pay their respects to Emperor Claudius. When Claudius enters, he greets each one. When he gets to Otho, who reminds him of his promise, Claudius calls him out as a traitor. Flabbergasted, he turns to Agrippina for support, but she only distances herself from him. Then Poppaea. Then Nero. Again, he is met with only a cold stare. Otho, confused and deeply upset, exits the coronation. When thinking about it, Poppaea can't quite figure out why Otho would be has hurt as he was. Determined to uncover the truth, she crafts a plan of her own.

As part of her attempt to discover the truth, Poppaea sits down near a stream and pretends to be asleep, knowing that Otho will pass by. When he finally wanders by the stream, Poppaea "sleep-talks", saying aloud what Agrippina told her to do. Otho hears her talking and angrily defends his innocence. Within moments, Agrippina's true intentions become clear to her and she swears revenge. Meanwhile, Agrippina is still plotting her son's ascension to the throne. She calls in Pallas and Narcissus one by one and asks each man to kill both Otho and, depending on who she is speaking to, Pallas or Narcissus. However, her plans for murder get nowhere with Pallas and Narcissus, so she turns her efforts to Claudius. She persuades Claudius into giving Nero the throne by the fact that Otho has set out for revenge against Claudius. Wanting to rid himself of this mess, as well as wanting to be with Poppaea, Claudius agrees with Agrippina to give the throne to Nero.

Agrippina, ACT 3

Poppaea crafts a deceitful plan of her own in order to right Otho's wrongful situation. She brings Otho into her bedroom and advises him to hide in her closet with instructions to listen carefully and to not react to whatever he hears. It is imperative he remains hidden. After Otho is hidden, Nero arrives at her request. Nero confesses his burning love for her, but she manages to convince him to hide as well after telling him his mother is coming by. Once Nero hides, Claudius comes in. Poppaea tells Claudius that he has misunderstood her. It wasn't Otho who forbade her to accept his advances, it was Nero. She tells Claudius she can prove it and motions him to pretend to leave so that Nero does not hear her plan. After Claudius pretends to leave, Nero jumps out of hiding to resume his conquest of love. Claudius catches Nero and angrily sends him away. After Claudius leaves, Poppaea and Otho confess their unending love for one another.

Nero has rushed back to the palace seeking his mother's defense. He tells her what has happened and asks her to protect him from Claudius' anger. Before Claudius is met by Agrippina, he is confronted by Pallas and Narcissus. They recite Agrippina's plans and her requests of them. Finally, when Agrippina asks Claudius to reconsider giving the throne to Nero, he fires back accusing her of treachery. Agrippina is quick to weave a tale of how she actually put this ruse together to benefit Claudius so that the throne would remain in their family, and he believes her. When Poppaea, Otho, and Nero arrive, he announces that Poppaea will marry Nero, and Otho will receive the throne. Claudius finds their reactions to be quite dour, so he reverses his announcement: Poppaea will marry Otho, and Nero will receive the throne. Claudius sees that all conflicts have been settled and calls upon the goddess Juno to bless them.

Other Popular Opera Synopses

Strauss' Elektra

 Mozart's The Magic Flute

Verdi's Rigoletto

Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Watch Now: 8 Fascinating Facts About Shakespeare