“Pray, defeated Virtue be gone!” Thus begins Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), in which greed and lust are rewarded and the powers of the goddess Virtue are overcome by the powers of Cupid. The upcoming production of Poppea represents the first collaboration between Juilliard Opera and the new Historical Performance program. Conducted by Harry Bicket and directed by Juilliard faculty member Edward Berkeley, this new production promises to be as fresh and as vibrant as when the opera was first performed more than 350 years ago.
Bicket, who is appearing at Juilliard for the first time, is an internationally renowned early music specialist and took up the leadership of the acclaimed English Concert in 2007. For the performances of Poppea, he will lead from the harpsichord. When asked in an e-mail recently about producing an opera such as Poppea, Bicket said, “The biggest challenge is to a find a singing style that is faithful to the very specific details that Monteverdi calls for yet is truly parlando and natural.” He went on to stress the importance of text in Monteverdi opera citing what he calls “one of the best libretti ever written for an opera” and noting that it could easily be staged as a play.
Describing his interpretation of the opera, Berkeley said in a recent e-mail interview that this production of Poppea is “aiming at an opera noir: with the force of desire running rampant through ancient ruins.” The production is set in a partially restored ruin in contemporary Rome with high Italian fashion inspiring the costuming and movement. In setting a very early opera such as Poppea, Berkeley said, “The biggest challenge I foresee is truly taking advantage of the amount of freedom that early opera gives us. The story and the music are on the page but in a sketch form that needs to be filled in. Now we get to create the whole shape with our musical and dramatic imaginations.”
L’incoronazione di Poppea was first performed in the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1642-43 Carnival season. Very little evidence remains, however, of this original performance. The material used to create modern performances of Poppea is drawn from several manuscripts, libretti, and fragments from later revivals throughout the mid-17th century. These sources generally differ and certain decisions must be made about which versions will be presented. Recent scholarship also suggests that large portions of the third act may have actually been written by the composer Francesco Sacrati.
The libretto was written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello and is based primarily on Tacitus’s Annals with components from several other Classical sources. Often cited as the first opera to have a historical rather than mythological theme, the gods still play an important role in directing, initiating, and commenting on the action of the opera. Busenello wrote in the preface to the libretto about his intention to adapt history for his own purposes. In this case, many of the characteristics of the principal historical figures were changed in order to suit the dramatic story Busenello was telling.
The opera is told in three acts with an opening prologue. In the prologue, Cupid asserts that he has more control over the lives of mankind than the goddesses Virtue and Fame and will use the story of Poppea to demonstrate this. Act 1 establishes the central relationship of the opera—that of Nerone and Poppea. Nerone, the Roman emperor, is betraying the empress Ottavia for the Roman woman Poppea. Poppea, fueled as much by ambition as by love, is betraying her suitor, the soldier Ottone, to be with Nerone. The philosopher Seneca urges Nerone not to replace the empress with Poppea but to little avail. In the second act, Seneca is warned that further meddling in this matter will lead to his death—a prospect that he claims to welcome. Meanwhile, Ottone is ordered by Ottavia to murder Poppea. Through the interference of Cupid, Poppea is saved. In the third act, Nerone succeeds in finding cause to exile Ottone, Ottone’s co-conspirator Drusilla, and Ottavia, and thusly be happily wed with Poppea. Cupid, along with Venus, descends from the heavens to crown Poppea.
Monteverdi uses noticeably different text setting styles for the various characters of the opera. Musicologist Ellen Rosand writes that “Poppea and Nero are prone to hedonistic lyricism … Ottavia speaks only in strongly etched recitative, Ottone’s music lacks focus … Seneca’s is bold and strongly directional.”
Musically, the opera calls for a much smaller group of accompanying instrumentalists than many later operas. The bulk of the players will perform the role of continuo: bass and chordal instruments accompanying the vocal lines. The continuo in this production will include harpsichords, organ, Baroque guitar, Baroque harp, viola da gamba, cello, bass, and several large lutes called theorbos. Violins will join the ensemble for performing the ritornelli throughout the opera that link scenes and introduce new characters.
While this story departs markedly from the rewards of morality usually present in literature, it has a feeling of currency that is surprising for a work from more than three centuries ago. “There is no need to try to make this particular 350-year-old opera ‘relevant’ today,” Bicket said. “It is already about as modern as you can get: sex, politics, infidelity, the corruption of power. This was one of the first operas written for a public opera house, and so the themes are far more earthy and subversive than the operas written for wealthy patrons. The music too is completely heart-on-sleeve and emotional with a very modern directness, which surprises people.”