Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto: Giovanni Francesco Busenello
First performed: Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1643 carnival season
Nero was the first historical figure to appear in an opera. He would probably have been delighted. He was, after all, an opera singer himself.
Good emperors were deified after their deaths, but Nero was less divus than diva.
His voice, Suetonius records, was feeble and husky; he was pudgy, bull-necked, and malodorous, his skin covered in pustules, with a protuberant belly on spindly little legs. He suffered stage fright; the gods signaled their displeasure at his début with an earthquake; women gave birth during his interminable recitals, and men shammed death to escape – but still he performed.
Wearing masks modelled on his own face, or that of the woman he was in love with at the time, he sang the parts of heroes and gods, even heroines and goddesses, in Canace in Childbirth, Oedipus Blinded, Distraught Heracles, and Orestes the Matricide – ironic, since he’d murdered his own mother. (He could also, according to rumour, have played Oedipus with equal aptness.)
With the true opera enthusiast’s love of extravagant spectacle over common sense, Nero tried to kill Agrippina in a collapsing, self-sinking boat – stage machinery that went awry. The embarrassed director was forced to take clumsier measures to dispatch his producer.
When the Great Fire broke out in 64 AD, Nero, “enraptured by what he called ‘the beauty of the flames’,” Suetonius states, “put on his tragedian’s costume and sang The Sack of Ilium from beginning to end.”
Most historians dismiss the legend that Nero started the fire – but acknowledge that he seized the opportunity to build his new home on the burnt-out area: a lavish estate of several hundred acres with a 35-metre bronze statue of himself, revolving domes, and jewel-studded walls.
With typical Neronian profligacy, the emperor announced that now he could begin to live like a human being.
And when the emperor stabbed himself, his dying words were “Qualis artifex pereo”: What an artist dies in me.
A suitable figure for an opera, then!
Monteverdi’s work takes place in the early 60s. Nero [Nerone] is in love with Poppaea Sabina, married to his friend Otho [Ottone]. Nero himself is married to Claudius’s daughter Octavia [Ottavia]. The emperor orders his former tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, to kill himself; banishes Otho; and orders Octavia’s execution. Free from all obstacles to their love, the new imperial couple lose themselves in solipsistic rapture.
Poet Busenello played fast and loose with chronology, rearranging dates, and rescheduling deaths to suit his theme of corruption and vice triumphant over virtue.
With Poppea, we move from myth into the human world of history and politics and passion. Orfeo is set in an Arcadian, almost prelapsarian world of shepherds and gods; it has one protagonist, a simple storyline, and various supernumeraries. It comes from the dawn of opera, when composers and librettists are still trying to work out what this strange mixture of singing and poetry does. Orfeo is a product of the Camerata: an attempt to resurrect Greek tragedy, a myth drama with text set to music (the stile rappresentativo). It’s a historical curiosity, but too remote to enthral.
Poppea’s Rome is startlingly cynical and sexually explicit, written for a sophisticated, worldly 17th century Italian audience. It has half-a-dozen characters: most of them amoral, depraved, ruthless, and weak, but all psychologically convincing.
Poppaea Sabina herself is the ambitious courtesan who sleeps her way to power. “She had every asset except goodness,” Tacitus wrote; “advantage dictated the bestowal of her favours.” She “used flirtatious wiles” to “establish her ascendancy” over Caesar.
“How sweet, how pleasing were the kisses of my mouth to you this last night?” Poppaea asks Nero (Act I); “and the golden apples of my bosom?” Nero moons over them like a lovelorn adolescent: “Your breasts deserve a sweeter name.”
The cuckolded Ottone is every bit as ineffectual as his historical counterpart Otho, who wore a toupee, depilated himself with slices of moist bread, and killed himself in the dismal AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors. Ottavia – historically, virtuous and beloved by the people; here, proud and jealous – and Drusilla plot their rival’s murder. And Seneca (a bass, the deepest voice in the opera) sounds like the voice of reason, singing with the “divine” authority of the gods in Orfeo or Ulisse – but Ottavia dismisses his advice as windy platitudes, and Nero orders his suicide.
Monteverdi’s admirers compare him to Shakespeare in his universality. All the characters come to life – not just the gods and royalty, but the commoners, too. The bawdy nurses who encourage their charges to take lovers could have stepped out of Romeo & Juliet; the grumbling, sleepy guards comment on the action, as they do in the history plays, and as they will in Berlioz’s Troyens; and a couple of servants make love, moments after Seneca’s death scene. The perspectives in this opera are multiple, always changing.
Poppea is an opera that must be seen, not just heard. It doesn’t work terribly well on CD; the music is too closely bound up with the text. (The opposite is true of opera seria, where the individual aria is often more interesting than the opera.) The score is moving towards opera as we understand it, but hasn’t quite got there. The music is quasi-recit; always apposite to the situation, always attractive, it has the intimacy and immediacy Wagner and Strauss wanted in their music dramas. While there are arias and duets, only a couple of pieces work as stand-alone numbers: the servants’ amorous duet “Sento un certo non so che”; and the famous duet “Pur ti miro”, which comes right at the end, and wasn’t written by Monteverdi, anyway. (Ferrari fecit.)
Poppea has been accused of immorality; it ends, after all, with the coronation of decadence and ambition through murder and duplicity. It has something of the brilliant cynicism of Seneca’s own bleak tragedies, or of Jacobean drama (Webster and Middleton). Monteverdi’s audience, though, would have known what came next.
Poppaea’s triumph lasted a mere three years; Nero married her in 62, and murdered her in 65. The emperor, according to Suetonius, returned from the races in a bad mood, and kicked her to death when she complained that he was late. (Some historians suggest that she died in childbirth.)
Nero then did what any grieving husband would do: he found a boy who resembled his dead wife, and castrated him. Sporus, a puer delicatus (child sex slave), was married to Nero, dressed in the Empress’s clothes, and given her name.
“A rather amusing joke is still going the rounds,” Suetonius records; “the world would have been a happier place had Nero’s father Domitius married that sort of wife.”
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1979 production, with Eric Tappy (Nerone), Rachel Yakar (Poppea), Paul Esswood (Ottone), Trudeliese Schmidt (Ottavia), Matti Salminen (Seneca), Janet Perry (Drusilla), Maria Minetto (Nutrice), and Alexander Oliver (Arnalta); Monteverdi Ensemble der Zürcher Oper conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. DVD Deutsche Grammophon.
René Jacobs, Concerto Vocale, 1990. Guillemette Laurens (Nerone), Danièle Borst (Poppea), Axel Köhler (Ottone), Jennifer Larmore (Ottavia), Michael Schopper (Seneca), Lena Lootens (Drusilla), Dominique Visse (Nutrice), and Christoph Homberger (Arnalta). Harmonia Mundi.
- LA FORTUNA [Fortune] (soprano): Anna di Valerio
- LA VIRTÙ [Virtue] (soprano): Anna Renzi
- AMORE [Cupid] (soprano): Rabacchio
- NERONE [Nero], Roman Emperoro (castrato soprano): Stefano Costa
- POPPEA, a most noble lady, mistress of Nero, raised by him to the seat of empire (soprano): Anna di Valerio
- OTTAVIA, reigning Empress, who is repudiated by Nero (soprano): Anna Renzi
- DRUSILLA, a lady of court, in love with Otho (soprano): Anna Renzi
- OTTONE [Otho], a most noble lord (contralto): Fritellino
- SENECA, philosopher, Nero’s tutor (bass): Don Giacinto Zucchi
- ARNALTA, aged nurse and confidante of Poppaea (contralto)
- NUTRICE, the nurse of the Empress Octavia (contralto)
- VALLETTO [Valet], page of the Empress (soprano): Rabacchio
- PALLADE [Pallas] (soprano): Ponzanino
- FAMIGLIARI, friends of Seneca (contralto; tenor; bass)
- SOLDATI PRETORIANI, Praetorian guards (tenors): ~; Captain Pompeo Conti
- LUCAN, poet, intimate of Nero (tenor)
- LIBERTO, a freedman, captain of the Praetorian Guard (tenor): Captain Pompeo Conti
- CONSOLE [Consul] (tenor): Captain Pompeo Conti
- LITTORE [Lictor] (bass): Don Giacinto Zucchi
- MERCURIO [Mercury] (bass)
- TRIBUNO [A tribune] (bass)
- DAMIGELLA [Lady-in-waiting to the Empress] (soprano): Ponzanino
- VENERE [Venus] (soprano): Ponzanino
- Prologue: Deh, nasconditi, o Virtù (Fortuna, Virtù, Amore)
- Scene I: E pur’ io torno qui (Ottone)
- Scene II: Chi parla? chi parla? (Due soldati, Ottone)
- Scene III: Signor, deh, non partire! (Poppea, Nerone)
- Scene IV: Speranza, tu mi vai il cor accarezzando; (Poppea, Arnalta)
- Scene V: Disprezzata Regina, Regina Disprezzata! (Ottavia, Nutrice)
- Scene VI: Ecco la sconsolata donna (Seneca, Ottavia, Valletto)
- Scene VII: Le porpore regali e le grandezze (Seneca)
- Scene VIII: Seneca, io miro in cielo infausti rai (Pallade, Seneca)
- Scene IX: Son risoluto alfine, o Seneca, o maestro, (Nerone, Seneca)`
- Scene X: Come dolci, Signor, come soavi (Poppea, Nerone)
- Scene XI: Ad altri tocca in sorte (Ottone, Poppea)
- Scene XII: Otton, torna in te stesso (Ottone)
- Scene XIII: Pur sempre di Poppea, hor con la lingua, (Drusilla, Ottone)
- Scene I: Solitudine amata, eremo della mente (Seneca, Mercurio)
- Scene II: Il comando tiranno esclude ogni ragione (Liberto, Seneca)
- Scene III: Amici, è giunta l’hora (Seneca, tre famigliari)
- Scene IV: Liete e ridente (Seneca, coro di Virtú)
- Scene V: Sento un certo non so che (Valletto, Damigella)
- Scene VI: Hor che Seneca è morto, cantiam (Nerone, Lucano)
- Scene VII: O come, O come a tempo (Nerone, Poppea)
- Scene VIII: I miei subiti sdegni (Ottone)
- Scene IX: Tu che dagli avi miei havesti le grandezze (Ottavia, Ottone)
- Scene X: Felice cor mio (Drusilla, Valletto, Nutrice)
- Scene XI: Io non so dov’io vada (Ottone, Drusilla)
- Scene XII: Hor che Seneca è morto, Amor, ricorro a te (Poppea, Arnalta)
- Scene XIII: Dorme l’incauta dorme (Amore)
- Scene XIV: Eccomi transformato (Ottone, Amore, Poppea, Arnalta)
- Scene I: O felice Drusilla, o che sper’io? (Drusilla)
- Scene II: Ecco la scelerata (Arnalta, Littore, Drusilla)
- Scene III: Signor, ecco la rea (Arnalta, Nerone, Drusilla, Littore)
- Scene IV: No, no, questa sentenza cada sopra di me (Ottone, Drusilla, Nerone)
- Scene V: Signor, hoggi rinasco (Poppea, Nerone)
- Scene VI: Hoggi sarà Poppea di Roma imperatrice (Arnalta)
- Scene VII: Addio, Roma! Addio, patria! amici, addio! (Ottavia)
- Scene VIII
(a): Ascendi, o mia diletta (Nerone, Poppea)
(b): A te, sovrano augusta (Consoli, tribuni)
(c): Madre, madre, sia con tua pace (Amore, Venere, coro di Amori)
(d): Pur ti miro, pur ti godo (Nerone, Poppea)
Denis Arnold, The Master Musicians: Monteverdi, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1963
Mitchell Cohen, The Politics of Opera: From Monteverdi to Mozart, Princeton University Press, 2017
Michael Rose, The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck, W.W. Norton & Co., 2013
John Whenham & Richard Westreich, The Cambridge Companion to Monteverdi, Cambridge University Press, 2007