The Imperial Bedroom, Rome
Roman Emperor Claudius fights in Britain without having named a proper heir to the Empire; all eagerly await his announcement of a proper successor back in Rome. Agrippina, the wife of Claudius, wakes to news that the Imperial Navy has been caught in a violent storm and the Emperor has drowned at sea.
Agrippina wastes no time in ensuring that Nero, her son by a previous marriage, takes the throne. She readies him for the tasks ahead and sends him outside as to gain support by giving freely to the poor. Agrippina sends separately for court members Pallante and Narciso, seducing them with promises of money, sex, and power if they agree to voice and build support for Nero.
Pallante and Narciso confirm they will back Nero and Agrippina prepares to ordain her son as heir. As the group conspires and plans the coronation, they hear trumpets outside announcing the arrival of the Imperial Navy.
Pallante announces that Claudius is, in fact, alive. He has been saved by Ottone, the Commander of the Roman Fleet. When Ottone reaches the inner palace, he declares that Emperor Claudius has rewarded his bravery by nominating him as his successor to the throne. Nero, Pallante, and Narciso lament the news.
In a private conversation with Agrippina, Ottone reveals that he actually loves the beautiful courtesan Poppea more than the prospect of being Emperor. Agrippina comforts Ottone while fully aware that Claudius keeps Poppea in the palace as his personal courtesan.
Poppea sneaks into the Imperial bedroom but is discovered by Agrippina, who warns that Ottone has betrayed her. She tells Poppea that Ottone has abandoned her to Claudius in exchange for the throne.
Agrippina suggests Poppea obtain revenge and make Claudius jealous. She tells Poppea to convince Claudius that Ottone, emboldened by his new status, has ordered Poppea to refuse the Emperor’s advances. When
Claudius arrives, Poppea executes Agrippina’s plan and makes Claudius swear revenge on Ottone.
Having realized that Agrippina has deceived them, Pallante and Narciso decide to form an alliance. Ottone enters in the midst of their scheming, apprehensive about the imminent public celebrations of being named the heir. The Imperial family arrives and tensions run high with the impending arrival of the Emperor. Claudius re-enacts his victories abroad. Ottone approaches the Emperor who accuses him of conspiracy and treachery. To his dismay, Ottone is shunned by all.
The Imperial Gardens
Poppea doubts Ottone’s guilt. Seeing him approach, she pretends to be asleep; but Ottone sees her and protests his innocence. Realizing that she has been a pawn in Agrippina’s plans, Poppea swears to be avenged and hatches a plot involving the humiliation of both Claudius and Nero. Nero arrives in the garden and is immediately swept up in Poppea's plans.
Ever ambitious, Agrippina has been plotting further to make Nero the heir and appeals in a ritual to the Gods for assistance. She commands Pallante to murder Ottone and Narciso; and then asks that Narciso murder Ottone and Pallante. She tells Claudius that Ottone is seeking revenge on him for the loss of the succession and persuades him to suppress Ottone’s dissent by declaring Nero as heir. Impatient to have Poppea, Claudius agrees.
Poppea continues her plan for revenge. She hides Ottone, telling him not to be jealous of anything he overhears. Nero returns, eager to seduce Poppea; but she pretends that Agrippina is expected at any moment and convinces him to hide. Claudius enters and Poppea complains that he does not truly love her. Claudius reminds her of all he has done for her, including Ottone’s punishment. At this Poppea claims he misunderstood her: it was Nero, not Ottone, who constantly harassed her. After she also hides Claudius, Poppea calls to Nero, who resumes his lustful pursuit of her. Claudius is enraged, interrupts and confronts Nero. Poppea frees herself of Claudius, and she and Ottone, reconciled, swear their eternal love.
Nero recounts his disgrace to Agrippina and begs her to protect him from Claudius’s rage. Dismayed by all the treachery, Pallante and Narciso reveal Agrippina’s conspiracy to Claudius but are banished when Agrippina outsmarts them.
Agrippina realizes her schemes are now in jeopardy; she claims that she acted only in Rome’s best interests, and accuses Claudius of paying undue attention to Poppea. She also reveals that Ottone loves Poppea. Claudius lays the blame for his actions on Nero, whom he commands to marry Poppea, and names Ottone as his successor.
Immediately, Ottone renounces the throne in order to reclaim his love of Poppea.
Endorsing Ottone's desires to the delight of Agrippina, Claudius agrees to name Nero his heir, with dangerous consequences...