Baroque opera was invented on a deathly premise: reviving a tradition of sung ancient tragedy that had in fact never existed. Modern historiography has struggled with the notion of origins, focusing on relationships among the surviving textual sources to make sense of the proliferation of theatrical subjects. These relationships remain important—but there is also reason to delve deeper into the “haunted” status of early opera. With respect to three central works on the subject of Agrippina and her son Nero (Nerone fatto Cesare, Noris-Perti, Venice 1693; Agrippina, Noris-Magni, Milan 1703; and L’Agrippina, Handel-[Grimani], Venice 1709), the haunted status of performances was made explicit, both in the drama and in contemporary poems dedicated to the main singers.
Using terminology associated with the “spectral turn” in the humanities, this essay argues for rethinking operatic genealogies through the lens of hauntological intertextualities. In contrast to traditional theories of compositional influence, this study adopts a non-linear historiographical approach to performance genealogies, embracing text, music, and discourse about opera itself. Contesting the use of the concept of “origins” with respect to both the birth and subject matter of baroque opera, I argue that the genre developed as an already haunted narration.