Musicologists have deemed Claudio Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea the undisputed masterpiece of early 17-century opera. But usually in the same breath, they acknowledge they have trouble reconciling the work’s pioneering structure with questions about its meaning, pointing to a central problem surrounding the immorality and evil that overshadow Roman emperor Nerone’s love affair with Poppea and their triumphant collusion.
Setting aside concerns about why librettist Giovanni Francesco Busenello allows the couple’s lust and greed for power to override the fidelity of those closest to them, Jane Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, has described Poppea as unparalleled in 17th-century opera in every other respect. In The New Monteverdi Companion, she calls its plot structure, musical variety and depth of characterization nothing short of brilliant. A close look at Poppea, the composer’s last dramatic work, offers a rare glimpse into the beginnings of opera, particularly as it evolved in Venice during a fertile period of theatrical experimentation in the early 1600s.
Poppea premiered in 1642 at the Teatro Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, only five years after Italy’s first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, had opened—also in Venice. Previously, opera was a court entertainment, accessible only by aristocrats, court members, or invited guests.
What was early opera like? In the Norton/Grove History of Opera, Stanley Sadie reminds us that 17th-century Venetian audiences were drawn to the opera house to socialize as well as hear musical entertainment. Candles illuminated the theater where Poppea was first produced, and they burned throughout the performance. Early Venetian public theaters generally seated no more than one thousand people. Because Monteverdi created the roles of Nerone and Ottone (Poppea’s betrothed) for sopranos, castrati performed both roles, a standard practice from church tradition that carried over to the baroque stage.
In 2001, Opera Atelier’s period rendering of Poppea, staged by Houston Grand Opera in the intimate Cullen Theater, emulated a candlelit ballroom stage inside a Venetian palace, a plausible venue for an early private performance. To achieve a baroque atmosphere, the lighting designer merely dimmed the houselights. Footlights rested at the front edge of the stage as substitutes for the candles that would have provided the lighting in Monteverdi’s day. (Houston Grand Opera’s 2006 Poppea, starring powerhouse mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role, looked quite different from the 2001 staging. It was performed in the much larger Brown Theater, with a larger orchestra, in the tradition of grand opera—much as it was performed after its rediscovery in the 1960s.)
In his 1989 edition of Poppea, critic Alan Curtis suggests that the orchestral accompaniment to Monteverdi’s late operas consisted mainly of continuo accompaniment from plucked instruments such as the lute and harp, citing a lack of evidence for other instruments accompanying the voices.
Strictly speaking, Poppea exemplifies the genre dramma per musica, opera’s precursor. As musicologist Roger Savage notes, it possesses qualities of a “sung-play” and contains “brisk action, mercurial moods, complex plots, flexible monodies, functional airs, telling ritornelli, and strong forward movement.” To early performers, acting and singing were equally important. Indeed, Poppea was a close cousin to other forms of spoken drama to which modern opera remains indebted, such as commedia dell’arte and ancient Greek tragedy.
Poppea set a number of striking precedents that were later adopted by Venetian composers. Its prologue closely resembles literary prologues contained in works of Renaissance drama. In the opera’s opening scene, the allegorical figures of Fortune, Virtue, and Love argue about who has the greater power over the fate of men. In this prologue, as in straight theater at the time, the composer foreshadowed the meaning of opera. Love wins out, of course, as Nerone ultimately divorces his wife and hands Ottavia’s crown to Poppea.
In a significant departure from the mythological preoccupations of earlier Florentine opera, Monteverdi’s librettos reflect a refreshingly modern treatment of character based on history, whose conflicts would have seemed familiar to actual Venetians in the audience. Venetian audiences were also familiar with the historical account of Nerone and Poppea. Busenello’s humanistic treatment of his characters was guided by a desire to portray real human emotion and conflict rather than recreate stories from myth and legend.
The libretto recounts the events of a single day in 65 A.D., beginning with Poppea’s pledge of love to Nerone, who is unhappily married to Ottavia. Ottone, who is betrothed to Poppea, discovers that she has been sharing Nerone’s bed. After Cupid foils Ottavia’s plot to have Ottone murder Poppea, Ottavia is put aside and Poppea takes her place as Nerone’s queen. Glover sees similarities between Roman opera’s fast-moving plots and Busenello’s structuring of the libretto. Poppea’s three-act structure represents a Venetian adaptation of court and Roman operas, which were divided into five acts.
Poppea’s musical structure also set important precedents that were seized upon by later composers. In “Pur ti miro,” Nerone and Poppea’s love duet that concludes the opera, Monteverdi helped fashion the standard for the lyrical form that became modern opera’s staple. The score’s distinction rests on the beauty of such duets, as well as its stunning arias and trios. The composer’s delicate balance of arias and ensembles, complemented by a highly poetic and emotional use of recitative, is revolutionary.
Glover notes that Penelope’s monologue in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse (Act I, scene one), along with “Ottavia’s self-introductory lament in Poppea (Act I, scene 5) are both recitative soliloquies of a distinction unsurpassed by Monteverdi himself or any of his successors.” Because Monteverdi’s Poppea stands out as the quintessential blend of music and drama, Venice became the heart of opera’s evolution.