Free tickets to the opera
I’ve posted before about some of the surprising gigs you get offered as a classicist. Visits to HM Prisons are at one end of the spectrum. Free tickets to the opera are at the other.
Well not exactly free. I’ve just finished writing some programme notes for Handel’s Agrippina which is about to open at the English National Opera (and I shall be doing a pre-performance talk in February). And the fee comes along with a couple of tickets thrown in.
There are in other words some collateral benefits for people like me in the perceived decline of classical learning amongst even the opera-going public. Agrippina? Who? Not even ENO thinks that you can put on a theme like this without explaining in the programme something about the ancient Roman character who lies behind the show. The same is true for Semele, Titus and Berenice, even Orpheus.
Enter the jobbing classicist.
I’d better make it clear that I’m no expert in opera – in the musical sense. I’m afraid for me operas are a bit like cocktails: I either like them and am very pleased to listen/drink; or I don’t, in which case I switch off/pour them away. Nothing more sophisticated than that, I confess.
On the other hand, for me the opera plots – and what they do with the ancient stories -- are always fascinating. They never fail to get me to rethink the classical themes themselves. Handel’s Agrippina was a tremendous surprise.
The Agrippina in question was the sister of the bonkers emperor Caligula, the fourth wife of Cl- Cl- Claudius, and the mother of the infamous Nero. About as well (or badly) connected as you could get by Roman standards. She has been the subject of quite a lot of academic work recently. This is largely because of her extraordinary public, semi-official prominence at the start of Nero’s reign (her head even appears together with her son on some of the coins).
But there are also some fascinating, lurid stories of Roman imperial corruption attached to her name. There were rumours of incest with Nero, and in the end a hopeless but ingenious attempt by the son to murder his mother, with the help of a collapsible boat. The latest book on Agrippina (by American classicist Judith Ginsburg, who sadly died before it came out) is going to be reviewed in the TLS soon.
Against this background, the Handel came as a bit of a shock. It turned out not to be set in the reign of Nero at all, but under his predecessor Claudius after the invasion of Britain in 43. And it was packed full of events that certainly never happened, and of characters who could barely have been alive at the time. Nero was actually about six at this point, but in the Handel he is already trying out the throne.
This was a bit puzzling at first. But then I realised that the opera had taken the classic incidents of the reign of Nero, twisted them about and re-set them in the reign of Claudius. So, for example, Claudius was reported dead in a shipwreck and then found to be alive – which must be a riff on the shipwreck in the collapsible boat which didn’t actually kill Agrippina. And that’s only one of the parallels. The whole thing I decided was a marvellously clever prequel to the stories I knew well.
I can’t now wait to see it in February. It’s a David McVicar production, in modern dress. Though I admit to some trepidation at the length (four hours, it’s said) – not because of the music, but because of the strain on the middle-aged knees.