Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.
The Coronation of Poppea is not the only ancient Rome opera we have viewed in our local video-opera group. Mozart’s Clemency of Titus was another. The thing that connects the two in my mind is that Titus was the warrior who ended the Jewish war in the year 70 of the current era, and Nero was the non-combatant who started the war against the Jews. Arrigo Boito composed Nerone, which dramatizes Nero’s persecution of Christians; I have a/the recording of it, but it has no pictures, so it will not be used in our opera group.
Monteverdi’s Poppea (1642, his last opera) was based on the work of the historian Tacitus. In our local video-opera group we have seen Monteverdi’s Ulysses (and Penelope) and his Orpheus (and Eurydice), and also this one, which is about the emperor Nero (and his empress Octavia and her replacement Poppea).
In the performance we saw, Anne-Sophie von Otter is Nero, and Mireille Delunsch is Poppea (we have seen her as the Marilyn Monroe form of Violetta la Traviata).
As usual in a Monteverdi opera, there is a Prologue. Fortune, Virtue, and Love (Amore) are having a superiority contest, over which is the most influential, and Love wins. This story will demonstrate Love’s world-changing power.
Here is one version of the opera, but some scenes may be omitted.
(1) In Poppea’s place (or palace), Ottone (Otho, who will be emperor himself for a short reign) loves Poppea, and he has come to admire her at dawn; but when he sees two soldiers he realizes that Nero (Nerone) is already there taking pleasure with her. “Ah, perfidious Poppea”, he laments, lengthily and bitterly.
(2) The two guards wake up and discuss the current politics: the Prince is robbing the poor to enrich his cronies; he only listens to the rapacious old pedant Seneca (a slander, I think; he was the famous stoic philosopher, and Nero’s tutor). Quiet, he’s coming.
(3) “Don’t leave, stay in my loving embrace.” Nero must go, but promises to return. “When?”
(4) Poppea is musing over her prospects. Arnalta, her old nurse and confidante, warns her that Octavia knows what is going on. No, Love will conquer Fortune.
(5) Octavia is invoking Jove and inviting him to punish Nero for his infidelity. She has a nurse, too (not given a name, a transvestite male), who imparts her counsels.
(6) Octavia is with her page Valletto (tenor, or boy soprano), and old Seneca instructs her in being a glorious virtuous empress, even though Fate and Fortune have struck her harshly. Octavia is not impressed; she knows that Nero plans to divorce her. Valletto mocks Seneca, and he threatens to burn his toga and his books if he does not help her.
(7-8) Seneca’s soliloquy (on the miseries that go with crowns and purple robes) is interrupted by Athene, predicting his death, and Seneca (being a practitioner of Stoicism) stoicly accepts it.
(9) Nero informs Seneca that he is determined to remove Octavia from her position as his consort, and then wed Poppea. Seneca says that the people and the Senate will not approve; Nero will tear out the tongue of anyone who gainsays him. He parts from Seneca in anger.
10] Poppea, Nero(ne), Otho/Ottone (unseen)
Nero has just had a quarrel with his guiding philosopher Seneca, over his plan to divorce Octavia and marry Poppea. Now Nero is in a softer mood, as Poppea asks him if he had enjoyed her kisses and the apples of her breast, during the night. The Emperor is so delighted he wants to make her Empress. Poppea points out that Seneca is saying that Nero’s sceptre depends on his approval. What? What! exclaims Nero, and sends a guard to demand that Seneca kill himself immediately.
11] Otho, Poppea, Arnalta (unseen) [eavesdropping is endemic in this place] Otho tries to regain Poppea’s love, but she says: Bad Luck. (Arnalta the nurse is given a word here, set to music by a later composer: Poor boy; when I was young I couldn’t bear to see my lovers suffer; I gave them what they wanted.)
12] Otho reconsiders his position: Poppea is a serpent that he can no longer cherish in his bosom; if Nero finds out they had been lovers Otho could be in big trouble.
13] Drusilla, a lady-in-waiting of Octavia, loves Otho; she asks whether he is still obsessed with Poppea. He admits this, but surprises Drusilla by offering himself to her, repentantly and wholeheartedly. They toss her doubts to and fro, but she becomes convinced. The act ends with Otho confessing to himself that he has Drusilla in his mouth, but Poppea in his heart.
Scene 1] Mercury visits Seneca, and invites him to join the immortals.
2] Liberto (a freed slave), the Captain of Nero’s Guard, reluctantly informs Seneca that there is an imperial decree: Seneca tells him that he does not need to speak the message; he can go and tell Nero that Seneca is dead and buried.
3] Seneca tells his friends that he can now put his stoic doctrines into practice.
4] A comic scene, in which young Valletto (like Cherubino) discusses love with a lady (again there is focus on the chest, and the word latte appears in the text); he describes his symptoms, and she agrees to relieve his discomfort with her sweeteners.
5] Nero and Lucano (not our tenor Luciano) rejoice in the death of Seneca, and they sing in praise of Love.
6] Otho is still pining for Poppea, and simultaneously thinking of murdering her.
7] Octavia demands that he kill Poppea, or she (Octavia, & Poppea will blacken his name.
8] Drusilla is ecstatic because Otho has said he loves her. Valletto (Octavia’s valet/pageboy) asks Nurse how much she would pay to be youthful like Drusilla; all the gold in the world, she replies. He goes on teasing her about her venerable age.
9] Otho approaches Drusilla in her deliriously happy state and asks her to lend him some of her clothes. He reveals that he is planning to do away with Poppea.
10] Poppea is in her garden, glad that Seneca is out of the way, and praying to the goddess Love for a safe and speedy union with Nero. Arnalta warns Poppea to be careful, but if she does achieve high rank, kindly remember her faithful nurse. She puts Poppea to bed.
11] Love watches over Poppea as she sleeps.
12] Otho arrives intent on murder, though diffident. Love intervenes. Poppea awakes and finds herself confronted by ‘Drusilla’ with a weapon. Arnalta calls for help. Love’s words close Act 2: “I have defended Poppea; I will make her Empress”. Remember from the prologue that Love was considered to be more powerful than Fortune and Virtue.
Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea
Scene 1] In the previous scene Otho/Ottone had disguised himself as Drusilla (the woman who loves him and has been led to believe that he loves her) and was intent on murdering Poppea (whom he loves, but she has dropped him in favour of Nero/Nerone). The goddess Love saved Poppea, and ‘Drusilla’ was chased off by Arnalta, Poppea’s assertive nurse. In this opening scene, the real Drusilla is thinking how happy she is because her rival (Poppea) is going to be removed by Otho, assisted by her clothing; if all goes well, she will worship and adore her garments after this. (Really?!)
2] Drusilla is now accused of attempted murder, by the formidable Arnalta (in the first performance this part was played by a male comic; we are still trying to work out what we are up against in this production; she looks just like a pantomime dame).
3] Nero enters and he is informed of the treachery against his beloved Poppea. Drusilla protests her innocence; Nero threatens torture; Drusilla confesses, and claims to be the only guilty party. Nero sends her off to the executioner, and adds a request that he should prolong the agony she suffers before she dies (lunga amarissima agonia, ‘long bitterest agony’).
4] Otho intervenes and takes the full blame. Drusilla is not to be outdone, and insists she is solely responsible. Their claim and counterclaim goes on for some time, until Otho breaks the chain by suggesting that an honourable death would be too easy for him, compared with being banished from Nero’s gracious presence. This works, and the Emperor consigns them to remote exile. And while Nero is in the mood for repudiation, he decrees that his spouse Octavia/Ottavia should be divorced from him and shipped to a distant destination.
5] Nero and Poppea rejoice, as the way to their union has been cleared of all obstacles.
6-7] Octavia laments her fate. Arnalta rejoices over her new status, as confidante of the Empress and living in the palace as a lady. The first Octavia objected to the order of the scenes in the script, which meant that she was upstaged by Arnalta
8] At last, the coronation of Poppea, as promised in the title. We should be glad for her, but they are a bunch of unlikable characters, and not one of them will live happily ever after.
Monteverdi was 75 when he composed this masterpiece (to be compared with Verdi producing Otello and Falstaff in his old age). The finale was set to music by another composer or two.
BBC Proms 2008
MONTEVERDI: The Coronation of Poppaea, an opera in a prologue & three acts
Fortune......................... Sonya Yoncheva
Virtue............................ Simona Mihai
Cupid............................ Amy Freston
Otho............................. Iestyn Davies
Nero............................. Alice Coote
Poppaea....................... Danielle de Niese
Amalta.......................... Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Octavia......................... Tamara Mumford
Drusilla.......................... Marie Arnet
Seneca.......................... Paolo Battaglia
Mercury, Consul........... Trevor Scheunemann
Lictor, Consul............... Patrick Schramm
Nurse, Friend................ Dominique Visse
Lady in Waiting............. Claire Ormshaw
Page............................. Lucia Cirillo
Orch of the Age Enlightenment/Emmanuelle Haïm
(Glyndebourne’s new production recorded 31st July
at the Royal Albert Hall, London by BBC)