Agrippina was among the most devious women in ancient Rome. She married the weakling emperor Claudius; after he was poisoned, she contrived to have her teenage son Nero ascend the throne and practically ruled the empire as a regent. Handel’s Agrippina, however, is a comedy, with a tame, elaborately plotted libretto by Vincenzo Grimani, a cardinal whose family owned the San Giovanni Grisostomo theater in Venice, where the opera debuted. The 24-year-old composer was then near the end of his five-year Italian sojourn, and during that time he’d become a master of the operatic form, so facile with melody and comic timing that Agrippina established his name in Germany and England as well. Handel’s Agrippina is still cunning, but she’s also likable, a mother looking out for her son. Her initial scheme for Nerone to seize the throne backfires when the warrior Ottone saves the emperor Claudio from drowning and is anointed his heir. Undeterred, Agrippina incites jealousy between the two men over the spoiled maiden Poppea, not realizing her own son is also infatuated with her. The plot twists are farcical–especially in a bedroom scene with Poppea stoking the three men’s passions–and the final resolution is so ludicrous it can’t be played straight. Still, the arias are marvelous and in the hands of the right director, the mocking of amorality and hypocrisy can be sharp. For this production by the Chicago Opera Theater, which has previously mounted exuberant modern-dress revivals of Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Semele, director Lillian Groag has chosen a 1920s gangland setting; conductor Emmanuelle Haim, once a noted baroque harpsichordist, will lead a band of top-notch early-music instrumentalists. The international roster of singers, most of them new to Chicago, includes Italian soprano Monica Colonna (in the title role), Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, Swedish mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarstrom, and French countertenor Pascal Bertin. Wednesday, April 30, 7:30 PM, and four more performances through May 10, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; 312-704-8414 or 312-905-1500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sasha Gusov.