Italian Opera Festival – L’Incoronazione di Poppea – Claudio Monteverdi
English National Opera

On October 2000 I saw another opera part of ENO’s Italian Opera Season at the Coliseum The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi conducted by Harry Christopher.

It was another update of an opera, a sexy, raucous update with Nerone the gifted American countertenor David Walker entering naked and carrying his pants and he’s definitely no castrato!!! He’s equally at home with is adolescent experimentations with boys yet passionately obsessed with Poppea (Alice Coote, a superb Poppea who is either seen half-nude in a sheet or casually dressed). The black American Eric Owens was magnificent as Seneca.

Michael Chance as Ottone gave a hilarious performance as he hurtled around the walkway in drag in high-heeled sandals after his failed assassination of Poppea and his losing patience with Susan Gritton’s twittering Drusilla: “Will you listen” he suddenly shouts at her. And Poppea’s “But….” when, in the midst of a steamy love session with Nero she changes the subject to the little matter of disposing of Seneca! An opera of bed-hopping Romans, cross-dressing, a power-crazed courtesan and masses of debauchery. The action takes place in Rome, 65AD where Fortune, Virtue and Love vie with each other. Love declares that his supremacy will be evident this very day.

Ottone has returned from abroad and longs to see Poppea once again. Observing two imperial bodyguards outside her palace, he realizes that Nerone must be inside and that Poppea has betrayed him. After a night of lovemaking Poppea and Nerone take leave of one another, and Nerone promises Poppea that she will take Ottavia’s place as empress. With her old nurse, Arnalta, Poppea muses on her ambition for the throne. With Love on her side she boasts that nothing can stand in her way. Arnalta warns her that she is playing a dangerous game.

Ottavia laments her situation. Rejected by Nero, she faces losing husband and position. She dismisses the Damigella’s suggestion that she take a lover. The elder statesman Seneca offers Ottavia different advice: she should exercise restraint and retain her dignity. Nerone tells Seneca that he intends to divorce Ottavia and marry Poppea. Poppea recognizes that Seneca represents the greatest obstacle in her path to the throne. She tells Nerone that Seneca is the real power behind the throne and the emperor immediately orders that Seneca must commit suicide.

Ottone reproaches Poppea for her infidelity but she dismisses his entreaties. He decides to forget Poppea and offers Drusilla (who is in love with him) his heart, but it is a promise he knows he can not keep. Seneca is alone in his garden. Mercury, messenger of the gods, appears and tells him that he should prepare for death. Seneca welcomes this news and, surrounded by his friends, Seneca socially prepares to commit suicide.

Nerone, elated by news of Seneca’s death, joins his friend Lucano in praising Poppea’s beauty. Ottavia, unable to bear the indignity of her situation any longer, commands Ottone to kill Poppea and suggests he will be less easily apprehended if he disguises himself as a woman. She threatens him with blackmail when at first he rejects her orders. Drusilla rejoices in Ottone’s love. Ottone enters, distraught. He reveals that Ottavia has ordered him to kill Poppea and asks Drusilla if he may borrow her clothes for his disguise. Drusilla readily agrees.

In her garden, Poppea prays that Love will ensure her marriage to Nerone. Soothed by Arnalta’s lullaby, she falls asleep. Love appears and will protect Poppea while she rests. Ottone, disguised as Drusilla, attempts to murder Poppea, but Love has protected her and the alarm is raised. Ottone managed to escape but not before Poppea and Arnalta mistakenly identify the assassin as Drusilla. Love is jubilant at saving Poppea’s life.

Drusilla is seized and before Nerone she is accused of the attempted murder. Although at first she denies the charge, when threatened with torture she pleads guilty rather than betray Ottone. Ottone then confesses his crime, blaming Ottavia for instigating it. Nerone shows mercy to Drusilla but exiles Ottone. Drusilla begs to go into exile with Ottone and Nerone grants her plea. The emperor now has the perfect excuse to repudiate Ottavia and banishes her from Rome. Ottavia, no longer empress, takes leave of her homeland. Arnalta congratulates herself on her new, elevated status as the empress’s nurse. Poppea and Nerone rejoice in their love.

Another highlight was Nero’s gay orgy with a group of dancers got up in furry trousers like Matthew Bourne’s swans; and Anne-Marie Owen’s beautifully sung lullaby in sharp contract to the mainly debauched proceedings.

The Coronation of Poppea was written in 1642, libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello. In 1602 he was appointed orchestra leader and in 1613 Director of Music at St.Mark’s Venice where he remained until his death in 1643, holding his musical appointments at St. Mark’s for no less than 41 years. Monteverdi said he tried to tie melody and words so closely together that it would be a “soulless body if the words were taken away”. It was also he who invented pizzicato (plucking of the strong) and the tremolo (trill). He was also one of the forerunners in developing recitative (declamatory song).

Wagner himself called The Coronation of Poppea a music drama (which was what Wagner’s operas were) because of Monteverdi’s ingenious use of the leitmotiv, so Monteverdi was well ahead of his time! (The leitmotiv is a short theme or motif which appears throughout a work associated with a character or idea and which reoccurs changing in harmony or rhythm to suit the situation. The term was coined by H. von Wolzogen to describe Wagner’s use of it. Wagner was the fist to use the leitmotiv consistently.)


Verinha Ottoni.


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