Ancient Rome during the rule of Emperor Claudius
Empress Agrippina presents Nerone (Nero), her son from her first marriage, with news of the death of her husband Claudio (Claudius), and declares that Nero should become emperor. Agrippina then receives two of Claudio’s courtiers, both in love with her: first Pallante (Pallas), and then Narciso (Narcissus). She promises them both her love if they help her to place Nerone on the throne.
In front of the Capitol, Nerone is distributing alms to the poor. Agrippina announces the death of Claudio and names Nerone emperor. But just as mother and son are about to take the throne, Lesbo, Claudio’s servant, announces the happy return of the emperor, who has been saved by Ottone (Othon). Lesbo starts on his way to Poppea (Poppaea) to bring her Claudio’s secret love greeting. Ottone announces that Claudio wants to name him his successor in gratitude, and secretly confesses to Agrippina his love for Poppea.
Lesbo announces Claudio’s coming visit to Poppea in her chambers. This is overheard by Agrippina, to whom Poppea confides that her only true love is for Ottone. But Agrippina slanders Ottone, claiming that he renounced Poppea in return for of a promise of the throne. To avenge herself, she advises her to make Claudio jealous of Ottone, so that the Emperor would allow Ottone to fall into disfavor. When Claudio comes to her, Poppea complains about Ottone and he promises to deny him the throne, but tries to force her give in to his desires. Only Lesbos’ announcement of Agrippina’s imminent arrival rescues Poppea from being forced to succumb to Claudio’s will.
Narciso and Pallante praise Ottone as the future emperor, while he is primarily interested in winning over Poppea. Claudio is greeted in triumph, announces victory over Britain, and swears fidelity to his wife. Ottone, he claims, is a betrayer! Rejected and despairing, Ottone turns pleadingly to all others for help, but is punished with scorn.
– End of Part I: Intermission –
In a garden, Poppea pines for Ottone’s love. When Ottone approaches, Poppea pretends to accuse him in her sleep of betrayal. Ottone swears his love to Poppea, who now seems to have just woken, and learns of Agrippina’s slander: both then realize the empress’ intrigue. Poppea asks Ottone to come to her quarters later that evening. When he has left, she has Lesbo also ask Claudius to come to her quarters. Finally, she seeks out Nerone, and summons him as well.
Agrippina sees her plan in peril, and she is plagued by grave thoughts. She commands Pallante to kill Narciso and Ottone, and orders Narciso to kill Pallante and Ottone. She then accuses Ottone of betrayal in front of Claudio and advises the emperor to name Nerone her son his successor that very day. As Lesbo is urgently calling the emperor to meet with Poppea, Agrippina continues to beset him with her demand, and Claudio, exasperated, promises to meet it.
In her quarters, Poppea hides Ottone and makes him promise to endure evertyhing that he is about to hear. When Nerone finally arrives, she also hides him, with the excuse that his mother was coming. Finally, Claudio enters, and Poppea makes a scene: Claudio has misunderstood, she claims, it is Nerone and not Ottone who is pursuing her and should be punished. As evidence, she reveals Nerone from his hiding place, and Claudio chases him furiously away. But now that Agrippina could arrive, Claudio retreats. Finally, Poppea can remove Ottone from his hiding place and reconcile with him.
In the imperial palace, Agrippina makes Nerone promise to forget Poppea and to keep his eyes on the throne.
Narciso and Pallante fear Agrippina’s betrayal, accuse her before Claudio, and report the incidents that took place before his return. Agrippina can make it clear to her husband that she was rescuing Claudio’s throne from others when she announced Nerone as successor upon hearing of the death of the emperor. On top of this, Agrippina says that Poppea loves Ottone alone, and not Nerone, whom Claudio had found in Poppea’s chambers. Claudio now recognizes that he is lost. He announces that Nerone should marry Poppea, and that Ottone should become his successor: a solution that satisfies no one. Only after the others explain the situation once more does Claudio finally come to the solution: Poppea marries Ottone and Nerone becomes the new emperor. Now all celebrate Rome’s happiness in a joyous chorus.