April 25, 2019
The Coronation of Poppea is the last of the three operas by Monteverdi that have come down to us. The first, L’Orfeo (1607) was written less than a decade after the beginnings of opera and is generally acknowledged as the first masterpiece in the new genre. Then, after a gap of 33 years, during which Monteverdi wrote many operas that are now sadly lost, we have two great works from near the end of his life: Il ritorno d’Ulisse (1640) and Poppea (1642).
When he wrote his first operas, Monteverdi was employed at the ducal court in Mantua, where he had the full resources of the court at his disposal. He had extensive rehearsal time, beautiful productions, large instrumental ensembles, and he was even able to publish a printed score of L’Orfeo. In 1613, he moved to Venice to take up the post of maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica, the most prestigious musical post in Italy after that of the Vatican. There he not only provided church music for St. Mark’s but continued to write operas, at first for wealthy patrons and then for the newly opened public opera houses. Writing for the new public institutions, where producers had to be careful about budgets, meant that ensembles were considerably smaller than in his earlier court productions. It also meant that operas now needed to appeal to the tastes of a broader public. Instead of the nymphs and shepherds of early pastoral dramas, his later opera The Return of Ulysses culminates in the famous bloody scene from the Odyssey, in which Ulysses slays the suitors. The Coronation of Poppea, also a story with villains, betrayals and death, is based on historical characters.
The libretto is by the Venetian lawyer and poet Giovanni Francesco Busenello, who also wrote libretti for Cavalli. For his story, he adapted accounts by Tacitus and other ancient writers about the infamous Roman emperor Nero, who divorced his wife and married his mistress Poppea. The libretto is among the finest ever written, with three-dimensional characters, lifelike dialogue and a powerfully developed story.
Remarkable juxtapositions of tragedy and comedy, innocence and decadence shift sharply from one scene to the next. Throughout the opera, Busenello has created complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad. The empress Ottavia, after gaining our sympathy as Nero’s rejected wife, ultimately resorts to blackmail to have Poppea murdered. The philosopher Seneca, Nero’s mentor and moral compass, sometimes appears intellectually rigid and unsympathetic. Seneca’s stoic death is followed by a naïve, humorous scene between two young lovers and then by a wild drunken scene, in which Nero and the poet Lucan sing extravagantly about the beauty of Poppea. As for Poppea herself, she appears to be both manipulating Nero, as well as in love with him. And, in what may be the most fascinating and morally ambiguous ending in all of opera, the work concludes with a beautiful love duet for Nero and Poppea, who have been the villains of the story.
Much has been written in recent years about the fact that certain parts of the score — among them some of Ottone’s music, a few instrumental pieces, and even the final duet — appear to incorporate music by other composers,. It is impossible to know for certain whether these were insertions that found their way into the work after Monteverdi’s death or whether the aging composer may have worked on his final opera together with younger composers in the kind of workshop setting for which his contemporary, the painter Peter Paul Rubens, was famous. Either way, what we have is a beautifully integrated work that makes for a powerful drama.
Our performing version
Sadly, no music from this opera has survived in Monteverdi’s hand. It was long thought to be lost, until a manuscript came to light in 1888 in a library in Venice and another was discovered in 1930 in Naples. Both of them were copied out after the composer’s death, probably within a decade of it, and were evidently intended for use in performances, although the exact dates and locations of those performances have been matters of some debate. Each score contains numerous errors and occasionally omits notes or words. But beyond actual errors, there are considerable differences in detail, as well as some major differences in which lengthy passages are inserted or omitted. As a result, they present essentially two different versions of the opera.
Boston Baroque performed Poppea a number of years ago in a version that I made for our performances. What we perform today is a thorough reworking of my edition going back to the original sources. While some recent editions have mixed and matched elements from both the Venice and Naples scores and from the surviving libretti, I have chosen to follow a single source, the Venice manuscript, and have referred to the Naples score and the libretti only where they might clarify mistakes or supply some missing notes or words.
Following a single source can give a clearer vision of the opera as it was prepared for an actual production in the seventeenth century, but there were several reasons why the Venice score was of special interest. Not only is it the dramatically stronger version of the two, but also it was prepared under the supervision of the great opera composer Cavalli, whose wife copied out the greater part of the manuscript and who himself wrote directions into the score. Cavalli may possibly even have written some of the ritornelli or other music, since by this time, the opera appears to have taken on some accretions of music by other composers.
The one exception where we do not exactly follow the Venice score is in the final scene of the opera, the coronation. That one scene more than any other appears to be a pastiche of music from various sources and is more diffuse than most of the rest of the drama. In this scene, I have made some small cuts (as do most productions) but have also inserted a beautiful quartet of cupids (amori) from the Naples manuscript.
The instruments in our performance
Perhaps the biggest difference among performing versions of Poppea is in the matter of orchestral accompaniments. In the original score, the instrumental ensemble almost never accompanies a singer. Aside from just a few bars with voice, the orchestra is given only occasional brief interludes.
The question then is whether the manuscript score is complete or whether instruments were meant to accompany singers in places where there is no music written for them. Every conductor must address this central question. A few composers (e.g. Dallapiccola and Henze) have orchestrated the work throughout, as in a 19th-century opera. That not only changes the basic character of Monteverdi’s music, but it also makes it impossible for the singers to be rhythmically free in declaiming their text or for the continuo players to improvise and react to the singers as they are supposed to do in this music. Other more austere performances limit themselves strictly to the notes that are written down, so that the orchestra almost never accompanies singers and plays only about 10 minutes of music in the entire opera. This seems artistically and financially as wasteful for the 17th century as it would be in the 21st.
This version for Boston Baroque is in a middle ground. I have composed instrumental parts not only to fill violin lines that are left blank in certain ritornelli but also to accompany singers at important points of heightened drama, moments when a character breaks out of recitative into song.
There are plenty of hints to support this approach. Certain other operas of the time have instrumental parts written out to accompany some arias. Occasionally a score will even give instructions that an aria should be played “with violins” or “with all the instruments,” even though no instrumental parts are shown. Orchestral accompaniments like these can heighten moments of true song. But the core of this music is in the freer speech patterns of the singers, the recitative, which is accompanied by the continuo section improvising its accompaniment.
The manuscript scores never specify which instruments are to play but simply give the notes. As in many works of the time, most of the opera consists of just a vocal line with an instrumental bass line below it. One must decide where to assign instruments to play the bass and which chordal instruments (keyboard, theorbo, etc.) should improvise harmony above it. To reflect the dramatic situation, we use a variety of continuo instruments to vary the sound– two harpsichords, theorbo, cello, lirone (the last of these an early string instrument played like a cello or gamba that plays chords on 9 to 16 strings). Even in the ritornelli (interludes), instruments are not specified. Generally, though, these would be for strings, to which we sometimes add recorders for color. We also add cornetti to the ensemble for the coronation scene.
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Having gone into some of the performance details in this music, we can now set them aside and simply experience an extraordinary opera. We read accounts by Monteverdi’s contemporaries of how his music could move his audiences to laughter or tears. This is astonishingly modern music that speaks in much the same way to audiences today.