Unjust Rewards: Monteverdi's 'Poppea' Operas, no mater how lurid or violent, generally champion lofty ideals and traditional values — but not this time. In Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, the most noble and virtuous characters wind up dead or deported, while the lustful and villainous are rewarded with wealth, power and passion.
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An Audio Introduction to 'The Coronation of Poppea'

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Unjust Rewards: Monteverdi's 'Poppea'

Unjust Rewards: Monteverdi's 'Poppea'

From Houston Grand Opera

An Audio Introduction to 'The Coronation of Poppea'

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The opera concludes with Poppea and Nero singing "Pur ti miro" — "I gaze at you" — one of opera's most sensuous duets. In this recording, it's sung by Sylvia McNair as Poppea, and Dana Hanchard as Nero.

"Pur ti miro"

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Ottone (Nathan Gunn) makes his ill-timed attempt to assasinate Poppea (Susan Graham), in Monteverdi's opera from Houston. Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera

Claudio Monteverdi didn't exactly invent opera, but he came close. His Orfeo, from 1607, is not only among the earliest operas ever written, but it's also the first truly great opera — the first to fully explore what the brand new art form was truly capable of expressing.

More than three decades later, when Monteverdi completed The Coronation of Poppea, he had not only become the driving force behind a new and unique form of entertainment, he had also taken opera in an entirely new direction.

Orfeo was written for a princely court, and paid for by rich noblemen. Their tastes tended toward fantastic, mythical stories — and away from realism. Stories about real people, with real failings, might have struck too close to home for the rulers of royal courts.

When Monteverdi looked at the operas those rulers preferred, he noted that "the interlocutors are Winds, Cupids, little Zephyrs and Sirens" — and he wondered whether opera could ever "move the passions" with characters like those.

Monteverdi wanted to write operas about believable people and plausible events, not fanciful characters plopped into magical settings. That meant turning to history for his stories, instead of relying on myths and legends. The Coronation of Poppea is the first known opera to be based on actual, historical events, and it relies heavily on the decidedly human failings that drove them.

Surprisingly, one key aspect of Poppea was so bold — at least by modern standards — that few operas have ever repeated it: The story's outcome is morally suspect. For centuries, most classic operas, no matter how lurid and violent, have been fundamentally rooted in traditional, widely-held values: Loyalty is prized, betrayal is punished, faith leads to redemption and only the purest of loves can truly flourish.

Monteverdi's Poppea, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the libertine intellectual currents of its time. In the course of the action a faithful wife is humiliated and disgraced, and a loyal fiancé is cruelly rejected. The apparent villains, two illicit lovers who have destroyed their more principled enemies, are left to enjoy a life of wealth, power and passion — at least for the time being.

The Coronation of Poppea comes to World of Opera in a production by Houston Grand Opera, starring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role.

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

The Story of 'The Coronation of Poppea'

Seneca (Raymond Aceto, left) advises Nero (William Burden) to give up his love for Poppea, and stay with his wife Octavia. Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera

Nero (William Burden) ignores his advisors, and gives in to his lust for Poppea (Susan Graham). Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

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Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera


  • Susan Graham ............... Poppea
  • William Burden ................... Nero
  • Frederica von Stade ....... Octavia
  • Nathan Gunn ..................... Otho
  • Heidi Stober .................. Drusilla
  • Raymond Aceto ............. Seneca
  • Camille Zamora .............. Cupid
  • Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
  • William Lacey, conductor

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

As ACT ONE begins we meet Otho, who is returning from a long journey. When he finally arrives home, he finds some of Nero's soldiers hanging around — and he knows what that means. Nero is inside, romancing Poppea. As the lovers emerge, Poppea makes Nero promise to get rid of his wife, Octavia, and crown Poppea as empress.

Meanwhile, Octavia knows exactly what Nero is up to. Seneca, an elder statesman, tries to console her. Then, when Nero confirms his intentions to dump his wife and stay with Poppea, the highly moral Seneca objects. Nero angrily dismisses him, and Poppea convinces Nero that they it would be best if Seneca were out of the picture for good.

Otho overhears all this, and appeals to Poppea to give their relationship another chance. She tells him it's hopeless. What would she want with him, when she can be with the emperor instead? When she leaves, Otho considers murdering her. He also decides that maybe he'd be better off with a woman who really loves him — Drusilla, for example. When he goes to her, she's suspicious, but eventually welcomes him. Still, Otho can't shake his love for Poppea.

ACT TWO begins in a Seneca's garden. At Poppea's urging, Nero has ordered Seneca's death, and Seneca has decided to carry out that order himself. One of his servants brings him a knife, and Seneca asks a few friends to witness his suicide. When Nero finds out what Seneca has done he's ecstatic, and reacts with a highly-charged scene praising Poppea's sensuous beauty.

Despite Nero's betrayal, Octavia still hasn't given up on saving their marriage. And if that's going to happen, she concludes, Poppea will have to be killed. But Octavia won't be doing that herself. Instead, she orders Otho to commit the crime. He turns to the faithful Drusilla for help, and she lends him her clothes, for a disguise.

Poppea, not realizing the danger she's in, prays to Cupid to ensure her marriage to Nero — which turns out to be a good move. That night, Otho quietly enters Poppea's room with his dagger in hand, but Cupid intervenes and prevents the murder. Poppea wakes up just as the disguised Otho is running away. She mistakes him for Drusilla and, naturally, tells everyone that Drusilla has just tried to kill her.

At the start of ACT THREE Drusilla has been arrested, and she decides to accept her fate. She wasn't the one with the dagger in hand, but as one who was an essential part of the plan, she admits her guilt. But she 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 says 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 isn't completely without scruples. He steps forward and confesses, but he decides not to go down alone, and also reveals Octavia's role as instigator of the plot. That gives Nero just the opening he needs — a perfect excuse to get rid of Octavia. He orders up a boat and has her shipped off into exile.

Nero then decides to spare Otho from a death sentence. Instead, he exiles him, as well. But at least Otho won't have to slink off alone — Nero says Otho can take Drusilla with him.

With all the sentences passed, Nero and Poppea arrange to be married, and Octavia sings a famous and beautiful farewell to her home — "Addio Roma."

The final scene takes place at Nero's palace. Nero and Poppea confirm their love, and Poppea is crowned Empress. After the coronation, the opera ends with its best-known music — a quietly passionate duet for the newlyweds.

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