L’incoronazione di Poppea
Opera musicale in a prologue and three acts (1642)
Giovanni Francesco Busenello
Poppea Sabina, the most beautiful woman in Rome, wants nothing less than to be Empress at the side of Emperor Nerone. To this end, she uses all her seductive powers to persuade Nerone to assassinate his wife, Ottavia. When the imperial philosopher Seneca opposes this plan, he has to pay for it with his life. Meanwhile, Ottavia in turn incites the spurned and deceived Ottone to kill her power-hungry rival Poppea. However, the murder is thwarted in time: Ottavia is shunned and Poppea fulfils her plans, wishes and dreams.
At the end of their opera, Monteverdi and his librettist Busenello demonstrate their bitter view of the world: all their characters have flaws, and ultimately, those allowed to triumph are those who act most unscrupulously. Monteverdi manages the feat of exposing his partially caricatured figures, whose melodies are very differently characterized, in a sometimes humorous fashion while also creating empathy for them. His extremely expressive music, with sensual melodies, bold harmonies and astoundingly avant-garde style, tempts us to cheer on the adulterers, despite their scandalous behaviour.
A day at Emperor Nero’s court in 62 A.D.
A fight has broken out over whether virtue or fate enables a rise into the highest spheres, but this is rudely interrupted when love comes into play. It will be seen during the course of the day that love alone determines the course that things will take.
Tortured by jealously, Otho sings of the beauty of his beloved Poppea, who in the meantime is enjoying herself with Nero.
Two soldiers of the imperial palace guard criticize Nero’s rule and the powerful in the empire.
Poppea delays Nero’s departure as long as possible, until he declares that their love must remain secret until Octavia is banished.
Poppea hopes to become Empress. But Arnalta warns her against expecting too much from her affair with Nero.
Octavia complains about Nero’s behavior. Her old nurse suggests that the Empress should take on a lover as consolation.
The philosopher and Emperor’s tutor Seneca advises the Empress to bear the abjection valiantly. Her servant loses his self-control and mocks Seneca. Octavia asks him to put in a good word for her among the people.
Nero tells Seneca that he wants to abandon Octavia and marry Poppea. Seneca argues against it.
Poppea reminds Nero of their joint night of love. He promises her to order Seneca to commit suicide and to crown her Empress the very same day.
Ortho accuses Poppea of infidelity. She explains to him that she has to leave him behind on her way to power. Arnalta feels sorry for Otho. Otho calls himself to order.
Drusilla, a lady of the imperial court, has loved Otho for many years. He decides to return her love, but his heart still belongs to Poppea.
A confidant of Nero delivers Seneca an order to commit suicide. Seneca declares himself ready to fulfill the command. His students plead with him in vain to remain alive.
Octavia’s servant and her maid Damigella discover the joys of love.
After Seneca’s death, a poetic competition breaks out between Nero and his confidant, Seneca’s nephew and poet Lucan, on the subject of “Poppea’s beauty”.
Provoked by Drusilla’s endless love for Otho, Octavia’s servant attacks the old nurse. She contemplates life’s fugacity.
Otho tells Drusilla that he will kill Poppea and renews his vow of love. Drusilla gives him her clothing as a disguise for the murder.
Poppea calls on Amor’s help in carrying out her plan to become Empress. Arnalta sings her to sleep — and herself as well. When Otho wants to kill Poppea, she is protected by Amor. Arnalta thinks the escaping Otho is Drusilla. Amor announces that he will have Poppea crowned Empress. Arnalta accuses Drusilla of attempting to kill Poppea.
Drusilla initially insists on her innocence, but then confesses in order to die in Otho’s stead. But he will have none of this. When both claim they are responsible for the attempted murder, Nero banishes Otho. Drusilla is allowed to accompany him into exile. Octavia is also banished as the instigator of the plot.
Nero swears to crown Poppea empress that very same day.
Arnalta is pleased at the social ascent of her mistress and her own as well.
Ottavia departs in tears from Rome.
Nero crowns Poppea. The gods of love sing their praise. Poppea and Nero celebrate their lust for one another.