Passion Vs. Propriety: Monteverdi's 'Poppea'

Monteverdi's Opera from Drottningholm

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Remember Dangerous Liaisons? The edgy, 1988 Oscar-winner from director Stephen Frears? It's hard to imagine a movie — or a novel, or a play or an opera, for that matter — with a more appropriate title. The film is filled with liaisons, and they're all dangerous on any number of levels.

The Hit Single

The opera ends with its most famous music, the gentle yet sensuous love duet "Pur ti miro" — "I gaze on you" — for Nero and Poppea (mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and soprano Ingela Bohlin).

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The B Side

In the second act, when Nero hears that Seneca is dead, his first thoughts are of Poppea, and he sings "Idolo mio" — "My idol" — to express his helpless desire.

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Charlotte Hellekant and Ingela Bohlin i

Poppea (Ingela Bohlin, right) is hard for Nero (Charlotte Hellekant) to resist, in The Coronation of Poppea, from Drottningholm. Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre
Charlotte Hellekant and Ingela Bohlin

Poppea (Ingela Bohlin, right) is hard for Nero (Charlotte Hellekant) to resist, in The Coronation of Poppea, from Drottningholm.

Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre

The same title might also have been given to Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 opera, The Coronation of Poppea, another story of troublesome, and even life-threatening relationships.

But there's one, intriguing difference between the 20th-century movie and the 17th-century opera — one that shows us how times have changed, but in unexpected ways.

In the film, all the characters seem to get what's coming to them, in conventional terms of right and wrong. The truly innocent characters are spared from ultimate harm, except for one who is actually martyred to the cause of righteousness. And the villains get their just deserts. The amoral rake played by John Malkovich winds up dead after a duel of honor. And the scheming Marquise played by Glenn Close — a character who says her favorite word is "cruelty" — suffers what may be an even sterner fate, at least in her social circles. She's subjected to a humiliating, public "hooting," as she takes her box seat at the opera.

So, as provocative as the film is, it's also a traditional sort of morality play: The good are sanctified and rewarded, while the evil are reviled and left in oblivion.

A similar conflict is set up in Monteverdi's opera, in which another pair of philandering lovers try to quench their desires at the expense of established, moral conventions. But the outcome is hardly traditional.

The Coronation of Poppea was written in Venice, in the midst of a lively, intellectual debate over the relative value of spiritual ideals versus sensual pleasures. In the opera, that debate turns up in a conflict between loyalty and lust — and lust is the runaway winner. A faithful wife is humiliated and cast aside. A noble champion of reason and civility is condemned, and commits suicide. And the two, flagrantly illicit lovers wind up with exactly what they wanted — the freedom to enjoy unfettered bliss, extolled in one of opera's most sensuous duets.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Coronation of Poppea from one of the world's foremost venues for Baroque opera, the historic Drottningholm Court Theatre, in Sweden.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of "The Coronation of Poppea"

Christopher Ainslie and Malin Christensson

Drusilla (Malin Christensson, right) agrees to help Otho (Christopher Ainslie) with his plot to murder Poppea. Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre
Charlotte Hellekant and Ingela Bohlin i

Nero (Charlotte Hellekant) enjoys a private moment with his Poppea (Ingela Bohlin) in Monteverdi's opera from Drottningholm. Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre
Charlotte Hellekant and Ingela Bohlin

Nero (Charlotte Hellekant) enjoys a private moment with his Poppea (Ingela Bohlin) in Monteverdi's opera from Drottningholm.

Bo Ljungblom/Drottningholm Court Theatre

Monteverdi's opera is in three acts, all set in ancient Rome, in the year 65 A.D. The main characters include Nero, the emperor; Poppea, his lover; Otho, Poppea's fiance; Drusilla, who is in love with Otho; and Octavia, Nero's wife.

Who's Who?

  • Ingela Bohlin ............. Poppea
  • Charlotte Hellekant ...... Nero
  • Christopher Ainslie ....... Otho
  • Malin Christensson .... Drusilla
  • Matilda Paulsson ..... Octavia
  • Lars Arvidson .......... Seneca
  • Rickard Soderberg .... Arnalta
  • Drottningholm Court Orchestra
  • Mark Tatlow, conductor

ACT ONE opens as Otho is returns home after a long journey. Arriving at his front gate, he finds some of Nero's soldiers hanging around — and Otho knows what that means. Nero is inside, romancing Poppea. The lovers emerge, and Poppea makes Nero promise to get rid of his wife, Octavia, so Poppea can become the Empress.

Meanwhile, Octavia knows exactly what Nero is up to. Seneca, a wise and principled elder statesman, tries to console her. When Nero confirms his intention to abandon Octavia for Poppea, the highly moral Seneca objects. Nero dismisses him, and Poppea convinces Nero that they'd be better off with Seneca dead.

Otho overhears all this, and appeals to Poppea to give their relationship another chance. She tells him it's hopeless, and when she leaves, Otho considers murdering her. He also decides that maybe he'd be better off with Drusilla, a woman who really loves him. When he goes to her, she's suspicious, but eventually takes him back. But as Otho knows that he's still in love with Poppea, and ends the act with the words, "I have Drusilla on my lips, but Poppea in my heart."

ACT TWO begins in a garden. Nero has condemned Seneca to death, and Seneca has decided to carry out the sentence himself. One of his servants brings him a knife, and Seneca asks a few close friends to witness his suicide.

Later, when Nero learns that Seneca has killed himself, the emperor's first thoughts are of Poppea, and he reacts with a highly-charged scene praising his lover's sensuous beauty.

Octavia still hasn't given up on her marriage to Nero and decides that to save it, Poppea will have to be killed. But Octavia doesn't plan to do that herself. Instead, she orders Otho to commit the crime. He turns to the faithful Drusilla for help and she gives him her clothes, for a disguise.

Poppea doesn't know that she's in danger, and prays to Cupid to ensure her marriage to Nero. That turns out to be a good move. When Otho enters Poppea's room with his dagger in hand, Cupid intervenes and prevents the murder. Poppea wakes up just as the disguised Otho is running away, and mistakes him for Drusilla

As ACT THREE begins, Drusilla doesn't know exactly what happened. She hopes everything has gone off as planned, and that she'll soon rejoice at Poppea's death. But she soon learns the truth. Poppea identifies Drusilla as her attacker, and Drusilla is arrested. But instead of protesting her innocence, Drusilla decides to accept her fate. She wasn't the one with the dagger in hand, but she knows she was a crucial part of the plan, and confesses her guilt.

Drusilla also goes one step further. In spite of everything, she's still in love with Otho. So, when she's brought before Nero for judgment, she takes full responsibility, saying it really was her that Poppea saw that night — and that Otho had nothing to do with it. Nero promptly orders her execution.

That's too much for Otho, who steps forward with a confession of his own. Otho also identifies Octavia as the instigator of the plot, and that's just the opening Nero has been looking for — the perfect excuse to get rid of his wife. He orders up a boat, and has Octavia shipped off into exile. He generously decides to spare Otho from a death sentence, and exiles him, as well. But at least Otho won't have to slink off alone. In another gracious moment, Nero says Otho can take Drusilla with him.

With all the sentences passed, Nero and Poppea — the emperor and his mistress — can arrange to be married, leaving Octavia to sing "Addio Roma," an emotional farewell to her home.

The final scene is at Nero's palace. Nero and Poppea confirm their love, and Poppea is crowned Empress. The coronation is followed by the opera's most famous music, as the voices of the two newlyweds intertwine in a way that seems almost physically sensual. The opera ends with their gentle but passionate duet.

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