Maternal power and its demise

Agrippina, an opera by Handel, was broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera on 29 February. Terri Apter (University of Cambridge) considers what the character of this tiger mother tells us about mothers and their sons.

Mothers are often attributed the ultimate power to either forge or wreck a child’s emotional wellbeing. Even the rich literature on mother love draws on this embedded assumption of maternal power, and therefore lies uncomfortably close to mother-blame. The mother who doesn’t 'let go', who plans her child’s life, who uses attachment to prolong her power, is seen as toxic as the mother who neglects or abuses her child. Combine the ambiguity of maternal power with cultural unease about woman wielding political power, and it is clear why Agrippina – mother of the sadistic and dissolute Emperor Nero – gets such a bad rap.

Agrippina, who lived from 15 10 59 AD, was framed even within her lifetime as power hungry, manipulative and murderous. Her brother Caligula accused her of plotting to overthrow him as emperor, and rumors of an incestuous relationship were the first of many 'she slept her way to the top' themes. Roman historian Tacitus charges Agrippina with using sexual allure to form alliances with men whom she would then persuade to destroy any rival. She is best known for persuading Emperor Claudius to adopt her son so that he could succeed him on the throne, and it is this story that fascinated two supreme dramatists of the 17th and early 18th Centuries.

For these two dramatists – the playwright Racine and the composer Handel – Agrippina’s maternal power was the catalyst to her triumph.  Racine’s 1669 play Britannicus portrays Agrippina as a possessive mother whose refusal to 'let go' of her son weakens his character. As she ousts the Emperor’s biological son (Britannicus) as his father’s heir, she sets Nero on the path to psychopathic tyrant.  

Handel’s 1709 opera Agrippina, with librettist Vincenzo Grimani, gives a comic overhaul to the dark material. Librettist Grimani was himself a political operator, with his support for the Habsburgs gaining him the office of Cardinal. Grimani’s text ridicules the machinations of his political opponents, but Handel’s brilliant, bracing score brings us the inward life of the characters so fully and poignantly that their crude stereotypes disappear. Agrippina is ferocious, but also proud, intelligent and vulnerable.

The production itself does not always follow the music’s nuance. In Act 1, as Agrippina conveys her plans to Nero, Handel reveals her as regal, steely and certain. Producer David McVicar, however, frames her maternal power as sexual teasing. She seduces rather than instructs the spoiled, cokehead of a teen to do her bidding. In other ways, however, Agrippina’s use of sexuality is strikingly true. McVicar shows (through DiDonato’s compelling acting) that Agrippina is not driven by lust. In fact, the touch of men clearly repels her. Sex, or even flirtation, is endured as a means to her ends. Poppea (sung by Brenda Rae, who has a voice like liquid silk) experiences a similar distaste, but initially she is more prey than predator of men. Then, taking her cue from Agrippina, she learns the older woman’s tactics and uses these against her. They inhabit a world in which every woman is for herself, alone, rooting only for the man who is most likely to secure her ambitions. 

This production was first performed in Brussels in 2000 and has undergone many revisions, particularly in the portrayal of Agrippina.  Reviews of the 2000 performances describe Agrippina as stalking the stage with aggressive shoulder pads, a power suit that suggested Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton. Here she is Instagram glamorous, elegant and poised, in spite of her constant drinking. Poppea, who also moderates her sorrows with alcohol (and chocolate) is an appealing young woman set on resisting humiliation and control. She bears more relation to Figaro/Beaumarchais’ Suzanna – clever, robust, and unmoved by the appeal of power – than to the ruthless, conniving Poppea of history (or of Monteverdi’s 1643 opera L’incoronazione di Poppea) who eventually marries Nero herself.

The production’s modern dress suggests not so much a tale of our times as a drama that might have been played out had the Roman Empire never declined. Wiped from the opera’s overt story are the women’s first arranged marriages (Agrippina at 13 and Poppea at 14), the difficulty, when they are widowed, of protecting their fatherless sons, and the question as to how to live well in a culture where women are easy prey. And while there is no hint of Poppea’s backstory in the Handel opera, Agrippina’s Act 2 aria, Pensieri, voi me tormentate, (How my thoughts torment me) reveal the desperation and fear behind her ambition. Only if her son is emperor will she be safe, her dignity secured. Her vision is so unyielding that, in hearing DiDonato sing, there is no room to reflect on the irony that it is her son who will kill her when he does become emperor.

Does Agrippina’s maternal possessiveness destroy both her and her son? Is it psychologically appropriate that, in a story about a mother who refuses to 'let go' of her son, the son then kills her?  

Certainly Racine’s drama is not sympathetic to Agrippina. She is the monster’s facilitator whose moral weakness seems tied to her control.  But within the play there is another story, showing that the problem is not maternal power as much as its demise. Agrippina asks the primary parental question: What does my son need to thrive in his world? She believes that he needs the best teachers, and she surrounds him with these. She believes he needs a good woman, one who will curb his indolence and selfishness. She works hard to secure this. But her son’s weaknesses overpower her strength. He rejects his teachers’ advice. He pursues women he can torment and humiliate. And then he rejects his mother. It is this rejection that destroys him. Had he remained under her influence, both he and Rome would have been ok.

More recent assessments of Agrippina point out that she was the only Empress of the Roman Empire and was an intelligent, benevolent ruler. Her effective control over Nero can be measured by the rapid decline of his rule after her death. These accounts are fully consistent with Handel’s Agrippina. It would be good to see a production that served the score’s positive depiction of her capability and pragmatism. In the meantime, we still have Handel’s music giving voice to a mother’s mixed bag of angels and demons – protectiveness, dedication, and strength, alongside her sometimes misguided efforts to secure 'what’s best' for her son. But then Handel’s opera also shows, in Juno’s final blessing of the coronation of Nero, that even the Gods do not always get things right.

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