So, you are not familiar with the opera but you are curious enough to look up your local opera house, and find “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” by Claudio Monteverdi in the exciting “What’s On” section on their website.
You open a libretto (synopsis of the opera is called a “libretto”, because…fancy), and immediately get lost in a gazillion of characters and story lines. Don’t worry, you are not alone here!
The story is set in Ancient Rome and features quite a few historical figures:Emperor Nero, Empress Ottavia, Poppea, the Royal mistress , Otho, Poppea’s spurned lover,poet Lucan, nephew of Seneca and Seneca, a stoic philosopher and Nero’s teacher , as well as a bunch of mythological figures (Fortuna, Virtu, Amore, Pallade and Venere), comic and plot-device characters (Valetto, Damigella, Two Soldiers, Littore, Liberto, Arnalta, Nutrice), and a specially created romantic heroine Drusilla (because the spurned lover Otho oughtta get a happy ending! Yeah, I put a pun there, deal with it).
Phew. That feels too much. Let’s try to figure out who is who, and what the hell is going on!
Now, a lot of modern directors will cut some scenes and even some characters from “Poppea”. You see, in Monteverdi’s times opera was nothing more than background music. No, some people would listen carefully to the music but most people would eat, drink and even do nasty-nasty (yep, true story). I know, you want to travel five hundred years back in time, I know the feeling.
So, to be realistic, directors cut “Poppea” so it doesn’t last more then 2,5 hours (without cuts – around 3,5). I think it’s very hard to see two identical versions of Poppea so it’s fun to watch this opera over and over.
So, without a further ado, let’s dig in!
The first scene shows a comic argument between two goddesses: Fortuna (Luck) and Virtu (Virtue). They both explain to the audience how amazing they are, and how so much better than each other. This scene is interrupted by Amore (Love) who interferes with the “yo bitches chill” attitude proclaiming that all gods must bow down to Love. Goddesses agree.
In the second scene we are introduced to one of the main characters – Ottone (historical Otho). He has just come back from war, and the first thing on his mind is not to take a shower but rather to pay a visit to his girlfriend Poppea (who in real life was his wife). He spends ten minutes describing his passion and her beauty under her balcony (Apri, apri Poppea is arguably one of the best tunes in the opera) until he notices two sleepy soldiers in whom he recognises Imperial Guards. This could mean only one thing – Poppea is enjoying the company of the Emperor. Ottone swears for the rest of the scene and buggers off noticing that the guards are waking up.
The “two soldiers scene” is a brilliant example of the early seventeenth century comedy. Soldiers wake up one by one, and, after making sure there are no trespassers, they start gossiping like two old ladies. Things are not so smooth in the realm – Armenia started a rebellion, and the Emperor is more interested in Poppea’s nether regions. His wife is heartbroken, and his brain is infested with the philosophical teachings of his old teacher, Seneca. The guards’ hatred of Seneca is pure classism; lumpens hating on a high-rank educated person. In the middle of the gossip, guards realise that they said too much, and sing a funny duet about “being ever-alert and not being made fools out of themselves” (Impariam, impariamo dagl’occhi). Guards disappear when they hear Nero waking up.
The fourth scene is one of the hottest opera scenes in history. If Nero was sung by a castrated male in Monteverdi’s times, nowadays this role is mostly sung by women, therefore an ensuing love scene between Nero and Poppea gets extra spicy. Poppea plays with Nero’s…ego (you dirty pervs) by telling him how much she enjoys having sex with him, and in the middle of this “good morning routine” she “accidentally” asks Nero if he’s going to divorce his wife or not. Inflamed lover, Nero solemnly promises to do just that.
When he leaves, Poppea is over the moon with the prospect of becoming an Empress. Her old nurse, Arnalta (usually sung by men for comic effect), begrudgingly warns Poppea that many a girl whom the Emperor bedded in his lifetime dreamed about marriage. She also warns her that the Empress found out about the affair and “all the hell gonna break loose”. Poppea doesn’t care – after all she is young, sexy and the God of Love together with the Goddess of Luck are definitely on her side. Arnalta is not convinced.
Ottavia’s scene is a bucket of cold water after the funny and sexy previous scenes. It’s dark, it’s depressing and charged with quite modern, quite radical feminist buzzwords. So, Ottavia is all alone and abandoned, she feels scorned and humiliated by both her husband and his mistress. She proceeds on contemplating over the overall misery of her sex, calling men “cruel torturers” and “criminal tyrants”, going so far as to express horror and disgust at the thought of bearing male children. She goes on complaining finishing with throwing impotence accusations at Jupiter for failing to provide specialised Nero-aimed thunderbolts.
Just like Poppea, Ottavia is interrupted by her nurse whose name is…Nurse. Very original. Ottavia’s Nurse suggests that Ottavia should take revenge by taking a lover, and having a bit of fun. Ottavia protests arguing that such unworthy behaviour will hurt her reputation without providing any benefits.
She is a bit of an uppity bitch but we will grow to love her.
Then appears Seneca. He starts with a grand monologue filled with some BS like: “without suffering you will not achieve greatness”, “torment makes your glory shine brighter”, “the spiritual fortitude is so much better than beauty” and etc.
Ottavia suggests that Seneca stops bullshitting the bullshitter. The serious scene gets way less serious with the intervention of a page boy whose name is…Page (Valetto). Page throws at Seneca a tirade after tirade of spicy punchlines, mocks his philosophical concepts by sneezing and yawning whilst pretending to be wise, and ends with a threat to set Senecas’s beard AND library (ouch, that sounds too cruel) on fire.
Ottavia doesn’t react to this interlude, simply instructing Seneca to beg her case with the people and the Senate thus hoping to bring her prodigal husband back to his senses via the use of the Ancient Roman social media. Ladies, this plan NEVER works, EVER!
Seneca is a good boy, but before he sets off to slut-shame Nero, he is visited by Athena Pallas, his signature goddess (‘cause she’s the goddess of Wisdom and whatnot) who warns him of his impending doom. Like a true philosopher, Seneca fearlessly marches on to return Nero into his shattered family. However, Nero has been a good student, and he parries each accusation with a counterargument of his own. The best excuses for whoring around are: “I do what I want ‘cause I’m king”, “My wife is frigid and infertile”, “F☘️ck Rome, f☘️ck Senate, f☘️ck the people, I will marry Poppea TODAY”. Well done, Seneca. A big round of applause for the wise guy who just f☘️cked everything up.
Hot scene #2. Fuming Nero needs to vent his frustration by booty-calling Poppea. Another spicy scene ensues during which Poppea asks Nero interesting questions like “How do you find my boobs today, sir?”, and when his blood completely flows away from his brain, she drops a truth bomb: “Oh, by the way, your old teacher tells everyone that he’s actually the king”. Infuriated Nero promises Poppea to marry her, and to kill Seneca (no, seriously, I get it, Poppea is a title role and a protagonist, but, good gracious Ignatious , she is a high-class biatch if you know what I mean). Unbeknownst to her, the spurned lover Ottone has been watching the scene from behind a pillar or something. After Nero is off on another killing spree, Ottone tries his luck with Poppea one last time. His knowledge of “consent” is far from perfect though, and it takes him almost ten minutes to get it: all is over, Poppea chooses the imperial gown over his affection, bye-bye and all the best to you. Ottone promises to kill her. Nice.
When Poppea is gone, Ottone is confronted by…A NEW CHARACTER (created by the librettist Busenello specially for him), Drusilla. Drusilla is a lady-in-waiting to Ottavia, and has been in love with Ottone for a long time. She sees how distraught he is, and mentions that “Karma is a bitch” and “Now your turn to suffer from unrequited love”. This makes Ottone miraculously quickly to change his mind, and in merely two minutes he professes his undying love for Drusilla. Drusilla, a happy fool, is off, and Ottone reveals to the startled public that Drusilla is merely a breakup replacement (yeah, we suspected that), and he is still pining for Poppea.
Phew. Are you still with me? I’m genuinely impressed, well done you!
We are briefly introduced to the character of the lady of the court named…Lady of the Court (Damigella. Busenello, seriously, what the f☘️ck, man). The Page boy (Valetto) seduces Lady of the Court and they have a ridiculously sexy and fun duet starting with Valetto’s “Sento certo non so che” (“I have no idea what I’m feeling”), a line that in two hundred years will be almost fully repeated by Mozart’s Cherubino in “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” (“I have no idea who am I and what I’m doing”). Ahem, copyright infringement, maitre Bomarche.
After this quick moment of sweet love and rocketing hormones we are back to the bloody drama of Seneca’s death.
Liberto, a courtier, sent by Nero to pass onto Seneca a Royal order to commit suicide, doesn’t feel great about his mission. It is clear that he values and respects Seneca. However, Seneca knows what kind of an order Nero has given Liberto, and frees the poor messenger from such a shitty task. After Liberto is gone, Seneca assembles his relatives and servants, and explains to them what is going to happen. They beg him not to die in a hauntingly beautiful chorus “Non morir, Seneca, no” after which Seneca calmly asks them to run a bath for him (which gives us a hint upon which method of suicide Seneca chose for himself).
We arrived at the SECOND HALF OF THE OPERA. Can you believe it?
Nero and Lucano (a Roman poet and a nephew of Seneca) celebrate Seneca’s death (sick f☘️cks) by having a steaming hot homosexual scene. Yep, when in Rome, do as Romans do. However it will be fair to say that “Hor che Seneca e morto” is a brilliantly written piece of music.
In the meantime Ottavia plots to kill Poppea choosing poor Ottone (who has just punched himself in the face for wishing death upon Poppea) as her assassin. He tries to say no to that wicked proposition but then Ottavia threatens him with a fake rape allegation, prolonged torture and subsequent death. Have you grown to love her yet? When Ottavia is off, Ottone meets with Drusilla to whom he promised a night full of passion. Instead he asks for her clothes (mate, that’s NOT how you do it), and to whom he confides Ottavia’s plot. Apparently, he needs to put on Drusilla’s clothes in order to get near Poppea without arousing suspicion. Drusilla, still a happy fool, agrees eagerly as she is happy to see Poppea’s lifeless body.
Meanwhile in the royal gardens Poppea prays to Amore (the God of Love) to make her Empress as soon as possible. She falls asleep in Arnalta’s lap lulled by the most exquisite and fantastic song “Oblivion soave” sung by her ever-watchful nurse (who almost immediately falls asleep herself). That gives Ottone a perfect opportunity to strike.
However the sight of innocently sleeping Poppea makes it all too difficult for Ottone to murder her in cold blood. When he eventually takes up courage to do the deed, Amore intervenes and wakes Arnalta up who mistakes the cross-dressing Ottone for Drusilla. Ottone runs away.
Drusilla, a happy fool, waits for Ottone to come and confirm Poppea’s death. However, she quickly realises how stupid she was when Arnalta appears accompanied by the lictor (a high ranking officer) named….yeah, you guessed correctly, Lictor (Littore), and guards. Drusilla is taken into custody and brought before Nero. She confesses her “crime” in order to protect the true identity of the assassin. Nero demands that Drusilla is tortured to death by “burning, skinning, flogging and slashing”. I love men with good imagination. Finally, Ottone mans up, and steps in confessing his crime. A semi-comic scene ensues with Ottone and Drusilla playing the “I did it, no, I did it, no I did it” game. Finally, Ottone mentions that it was Ottavia’s plan from the very beginning, making Nero very happy: he needed a reason to get rid of Ottavia, and this is his perfect chance. Nero graciously forgives Ottone by stripping him of all his riches, and sending him into exile together with the loving Drusilla. A happy ending, yay.
Poppea finally gets a “yes” from Nero and they sing a love duet after which we are introduced to the heart-wrenching scene of Ottavia’s exile. With the passionate Addio Roma She bids farewell to Rome fully understanding that she will never see her motherland again. Now, in real life, Nero sent an assassin to Ottavia while she was in exile, an assassin who bound her, slashed her wrists and left her to bleed out in hot sauna where she eventually was smothered by the super-heated vapours. Lovely.
When Ottavia is gone for good, Arnalta steals the show with a comic monologue in which she fantasises about her own future after Poppea becomes Empress. She imagines all the flattery and all the bribes she will be receiving as the new Empress’ confidante.
A lavish wedding scene features Nero, Poppea, a chorus of tribunes and senators, Fortuna, Virtu, Amore and Venere (Venus, goddess of beauty) with the latter crowning Poppea as a new deity. In the end of the spectacular wedding sounds the most haunting, the most beautiful and the most famous tune from the opera, a duet “Pur ti miro” which is as enchanting as it is terrifying: in few months after the opera’s “love trumps hate” finale, Nero will murder his Empress Poppea by either beating her to death, or (according to another account) ripping the unborn baby out of her womb. The exquisite, innocent and graceful finale marks the end of “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”, the sexiest and the bloodiest opera of the seventeenth century.