L'incoronazione die Poppea, Claudio Monteverdi, Handlung, Synopsis

Online opera guide and synopsis of Monteverdi’s L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA

“l’incoronazione di Poppea” inspires with a gripping plot with people made of flesh and blood. It is THE masterpiece of the early baroque period and Monteverdi presents himself as a mature master and innovative creator, who significantly influenced the history of opera with this “dramma per musica”. Even today not only the final duet still moves the hearts of the listeners.











Act I 

Act II






E pur io torno qui, qual linea al centro

Signor, deh, no partire … Non temer

Speranza tu mi vai

Disprezzata Regina Lament

Son risoluto al fine

Sento un certo non so che

Hor che Seneca è morto

Oblivion soave Lullaby

A Dio Roma, a Dio Patria, amici a Dio Lament

Coro di Amori: Or cantiamo giocondi

Pur ti miro, pur ti godo Love duet




Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation




Venice, 1905


Francesco Busenello, based on the historical story of Nero.


Ottone, patrician (alto / countertenor) - Poppea, Wife of Ottones (soprano) - Nero, Roman emperor (soprano / tenor castrato) - Seneca, politician and philosopher (bass) - Drusilla, Lady-in-waiting of Poppea (soprano) - Arnalta, Poppea's nurse (countertenor / soprano castrato) - Amor, God of Love (soprano)


UNITEL/DG, Rachel Yakar, Trudeliese Schmidt, Eric Tappy, Paul Esswood, Matti Salminen, Janet Perry. Alexander Oliver conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Monteverdi Ensemble of the Zurich Opera House.







The revolutionary Monteverdi

Monteverdi undoubtedly deserves the credit for having co-founded the art form of opera. Although he did not write the first opera (this honor belongs to the Italian Jacopo Peri), he did write with “Orfeo” the first opera that has remained in the repertoire to this day and he created important stylistic elements of the new art form, which are going to be described in the following sections. While Jacopo Peri’s works were still “passionless music”, this new genre of opera was really launched with Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, the first “dramma per musica”. With “L’incoronazione di Poppea”, almost 40 years later, Monteverdi developed this genre further with a second quantum leap at the astonishing age of 75 years into its first flowering.



The music – “the cry of pain”

First of all, it should be said that there is no score of this work in the classical sense. The original score is lost, there are “only” two copies of two different versions (the Venetian one, which is probably a copy of the original and the Neapolitan one, which is probably a variation). The compositional principle was that only bass and melody parts were notated. Both the accompaniment and the orchestration are not handed down, and must be defined by the interpreters. As a result, recordings of the same passage can differ greatly from one another.

Although we know the list of instruments that have been used as a whole, we do not know in detail when they should be used. Although there are rules of thumb when singers should be accompanied only by the basso continuo or when the instrumentation should be richer (for example in the ritornelli), however many uncertainties remain.

We know that Monteverdi preferred a rich instrumentation, but also adapted it to the situation in theaters, since the musicians usually played on stage.
Monteverdi’s operatic language wanted to express the feelings of the human beings, Monteverdi believed that music should make people cry, not discuss. Music should not follow rigid rules, but should give space to the human condition and express it. One of the most sensational consequences were Monteverdi’s dissonances. For his contemporaries this werde monstrosities that represent extreme states of mind and triggered fierce polemics at the time. The famous “Lasciatemi morire” from the opera “Arianna” – the cry of pain – can be used as an illustration.  Listen to this:

Lasciatemi morire  –  von Otter


Another beautiful and famous example of a dissonant Lamentos can be found in the famous madrigal “Lamento delle ninfe”. In the sound sample, listen to a dissonance at 0:48 with the word”dolor” (pain), which still hurts our ears today, which are used to dissonances. With the subsequent famous and archetypal Lamento over a “Basso ostinato” (four descending, repeating bass chords) Monteverdi became a veritable style-setter.

Lamento delle ninfe



Castratos in the leading role – how to cast the role of Nero?

The first castrati appeared in the 16th century. They were trained by the churches and formed an important pillar of vocal church music. They soon found their way into the new genre of opera and Monteverdi already employed castratos in supporting roles in his first revolutionary opera “Orfeo” (1607). In his “L’incoronazione di Poppea”, castratos appear for the first time ever in the leading role. The role of Nero, thus the first castrato hero in opera history, was cast by a soprano castrato, and the buffo role of the nurse(!)Arnalta, hence the first drag queen, was cast by a tenor castrato.
Nowadays the question arises how the role of Nero, with his extremely high register, should be cast. Most of the time the role is sung by a countertenor, occasionally by a female soprano or a tenor.
Harnoncourt for example, a conductor specialised in early music, used a soprano (Elisabeth Söderström) for the role of Nero in his recording with the Concentus musicus and a tenor (Eric Tappy) in the recording with Ponnelle and the Zurich Opera House. There is no right or wrong, in Monteverdi’s time, the boundaries of gender roles were not so strict, ambiguity was something charming, or could be used comedically, as the casting of the role of the nurse by a man shows.


The libretto and the role-stereotypes

First the word and then the music (prima la musica, poi le parole) was Monteverdi’s credo. He wanted to bring the feelings of the people to life. The music became monodic and so text and meaning of the libretto was enhanced. Thus Monteverdi was dependent on a congenial partner, a dramatist who could not only write a beautiful poem, but could also tell a story for his “dramma per musica”.
The author of the libretto was the Venetian lawyer and poet Francesco Busenello. For the opera he used the then modern Venetian form with prologue and three acts.
Busenello and Monteverdi chose roles which became archetypal. First of all, the contrast between the couple of high rank (Nero / Poppea) and the couple of low rank (Ottone / Drusilla) should be mentioned. Furthermore they used common people as comic characters (the nurses, the servants), as well as the role of the schemer (Octavia) and the trouser role. How close this constellation seems to us to Mozart’s opera “Le nozze di Figaro”, which was composed 150 years later and written by the Venetian da Ponte!

The characters created by Monteverdi and his librettist Busenello seem to us to be people of flesh and blood, making it easier for us to identify with them than with most of the characters in later centuries’ operas that are closer in terms of time.

Monteverdi and his librettist based their story for the first time not on Greek mythology but on historical material. They show a decadent roman society full of selfish, unscrupulous and cynical people. The creators of the work succeeded (like their contemporary Shakespeare) in realistically portraying people with their human weaknesses.



The precursor of Opera Seria

In this phase of baroque opera there was no separation of seria and buffa. The opera embodies both, tragic elements of drama as well as the buffo elements . In the late 1630s, operas were written especially for the carnival season (this work is one of them), so a comedy in a drama was permitted, even desired, to appeal to the growing affluent class of merchants who were less educated than the clergy and nobility. It was not until decades later that Metastasio created the baroque style of opera seria and the paths of opera buffa and seria separated forever.



The rediscovery of the opera

We are lucky that this opera has been preserved for us. In 1651, four years after the death of Monteverdi, the opera was performed again in Naples and a clean musical notation has been preserved. The original score disappeared, so there are two different sources of music. The documents had been lost for a long time and were rediscovered in 1888, first published by Goldschmidt in 1904 and performed for the first time in 1908. In 1954 it was performed in Vienna under the direction of Paul Hindemith with partially original instruments. In the orchestra sat Nicolaus Harnoncourt, who together with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle recorded a sensational Monteverdi cycle on period instruments at the Zurich Opera House in the 1970s, with a baroque richness of staging. They heralded a veritable Monteverdi Renaissance.









In the world of the gods

Synopsis: In the world of the gods..

Monteverdi begins the work with a solemn and brief opening. It is interesting to compare different recordings; they differ greatly, since (as described in the introduction section) the exact instrumentation of the pieces of music is not known.

Sinfonia  –  Harnoncourt


Synopsis: Fortuna (fate) and Virtù (virtue) argue about who is in charge of the world. Is it money or incorruptibility. Cupid is of a different opinion, he wants to prove to the two that love alone determines the course of things.

Deh nasconditi o virtu








The emotional world of Ottone

Synopsis: Ottone returns home from military service. He is happy to see his wife Poppea again. In front of the house he sees the Emperor’s guards, he knows now that Nero spent the night with Poppea. Ottone is destroyed. He hides.

Monteverdi sensitively accompanies every nuance of the text with changing instruments and shows himself to be a master of colorful accompaniment to Ottone’s arioso.

E pur io torno qui, qual linea al centro  –  Esswood


Poppea wraps Nero around her little finger

Synopsis: In front of the house there are two guards, they talk about the corrupt emperor, who, instead of keeping order, thinks only of his pleasure. Nero appears, accompanied by Poppea. She wants him to stay, he promises her that he will soon banish his wife and Poppea will become the new empress.

The first part of this passage is written in the declamatory style of the “recitar cantando”. Gradually the piece comes to life and gives the (castrato) tenor the opportunity to shine with beautiful ornaments from 6:45 and Poppea the opportunity to languish wonderfully at 7:15 (“Tornerai”). It is the unvarnished sexual temptation that Monteverdi accentuates with Poppea’s low pitched voice in this scene.

Signor, deh, no partire … Non temer


The appearance of the “drag queen

Synopsis: Poppea triumphs. But her servant Arnalta warns her of the fickle Nero and his wife Ottavia, who has found out about the adventures of her husband and may seek revenge.

Poppea appears to us as a modern woman, by no means as the noble “don’t touch me” woman. The role of Arnalta was a castrato role and of course comedic. The landlady and servant exchange blows, which Monteverdi masterfully staged.

Speranza tu mi vai  –  Persson



Ottavia’s moving lament

Synopsis: Octavia is in the imperial chambers together with her nurse. She mourns her fate of the deceived wife.

The lamentations were always highlights of baroque operas, touching is her rhetorical question “Nero…dove sei? (“Nero where are you?”) at 3:03 and the subsequent gestures of despair.

We hear the lament in the haunting interpretation by Jennifer Larmore.

Disprezzata Regina  –  Larmore


Synopsis: Her nurse recommends her to look for a lover and thus take revenge on Nero and have fun. When Senator Seneca visits her, she tells him what happened. Seneca advises her to remain virtuous, and a page bluntly accuses him of spreading only fine words. Ottavia asks Seneca to stand by her.

Seneca appears measured but pretentious.

Ecco la sconsolata  –  Salminen


The showdown between Nero and Seneca

Synopsis: Everyone except Seneca leaves the room. Pallas Athena appears and announces his imminent death. Seneca receives this message calmly, soon after Nero appears. He tells him that he will marry Poppea today. Seneca warns him not to upset the people and the Senate, but Nero is determined to prevail and throws Seneca out of the palace.

The effect Monteverdi created with the clash of the soprano and the bass was grandiose and dramatized the contrast between the two personalities. The first part remains in the “stile recitando” and changes from 3:00 a.m. to Monteverdi’s famous agitated “stile concitato”, invented by him, which paints the clash of the two powers magnificently musically. For the interpreter of Nero, the challenge was to shape the sometimes loud outbursts in such a way that his voice remains supple enough for the final duet, where he has to sing beautiful lines in an extremely high register.

Son risoluto al fine  –  Tappy / Salminen



Synopsis: Poppea warns Nero about Seneca and Nero decides to send Seneca an order to commit suicide and leaves the house.

An aria by Nero, in which he praises the beauty of Poppea.

Quest’eccelso diadema ond’io sovrasto  –  Tappy



Synopsis: Ottone visits Poppea and tries to win back the favor of his wife. But she doesn’t want to know anything more about him, the throne is too close.

Ad altri tocca in sorte  –   Domènech / Persson



Ottone capitulates… and and takes comfort in Drusilla

Synopsis: Ottone visits Poppea and wants to talk to her. Poppea explains that she has chosen Nero and the throne.

Otton, torna in te stesso  –  Esswood



Synopsis: Ottone takes comfort in Poppea’s lady-in-waiting Drusilla, who has long been in love with him.

Pur sempre di Poppea  –  Esswood / Perry









Seneca says farewell to the world

Synopsis: Seneca is in the garden of his house as Mercury appears. He receives the announcement of his imminent death with composure. The soldier Liberto appears. Before he can give the order to Nero, Seneca lets him know that he knows the reason for his visit and that he can tell Nero that he will end his life before the evening. Seneca’s friends regret his fate. He asks them to prepare the bath where he will slit his wrists.

In the first part, we hear Seneca’s mourning, followed by the appearance of his friends. This three-voiced passage is composed in three sections, slow-fast-slow. The slow parts are written in the “old madrigal style”. The fast middle part is kept strangely cheerful in music and text (“This life is too sweet, this sky is too clear, every bitterness, every poison”), probably a tribute to carnival.

Amici, è giunta l’hora  –  Sedov / Grégoire / Bennett / Inaç




Synopsis:In Nero’s palace the page and the maid confess their love to each other.

After the proclamation of death, Monteverdi wanted to give the audience some rest and inserted a duet of the two servants in the style of a canzonetta (a lighter, secular singing piece). This scene offers the director the opportunity to entertain his audience with hearty humor in the style of carnival.

Sento un certo non so che



Nero’s Bacchanale

Synopsis:Nero now can marry Poppea. He celebrates with his confidant Luca In the palace and they praise her beauty.

This exuberant piece in the form of a bacchanale gives the singer the opportunity to shine at the beginning with beautiful and virtuoso coloraturas. Of course Monteverdi and his librettist were alluding to the alleged homosexuality of Nero with this scene.

Hor che Seneca è morto… Idolo mio…. I mieti subiti sdegni  –  Jaroussky / Vidal



Ottavia blackmails Ottone

Synopsis: Ottavia did not remain passive and summoned Ottone. She reminds him that once his family had been ennobled by her ancestors. She now demands that he kill Poppea. Ottone knows that this would be his death sentence and hesitates. But the empress blackmails him, if he didn’t promise to do the deed, she would tell Nero that he attacked her. Ottone capitulates and returns home, where Drusilla is waiting for him. He explains her his situation. To kill Poppea he wants to disguise as Drussilla. Drusilla want to help him and he slips into her clothes.


Arnalta’s enchanting lullaby

Synopsis: On the eve of her coronation, Poppea sees herself at the destination of her dreams and lies down to rest. Her nurse promises to watch over her.

We hear the enchanting lullaby “Oblivion soave” from Poppea’s Travesty-Nurse with a delicate accompaniment of the orchestra.

Oblivion soave  –  Jaroussky



Synopsis: The nurse falls asleep and Cupid appears. He wants to protect Poppea from the approaching Ottone.

Dorme l’incauta, dorme



Synopsis:Ottone appears disguised as Drusilla. As he raises his sword above the sleeping Poppea, Cupid steps in. Poppea wakes up and thinks Drusilla wants to kill her, Ottone manages to escape.










Synopsis: At home Drusilla joyfully awaits her lover, whom she soon has for herself.

O felice Drusilla, o che sper’io  –  Bott



Synopsis:But soldiers come in his place to arrest her and convict her of murder. When Nero appears and threatens her with torture, Drusilla sacrifices herself and claims that she herself wanted to kill Poppea, whereupon Nero orders her to die an agonizing death. Now Ottone appears and confesses the truth that he was acting on behalf of the empress. Nero triumphs, which gives him the longed-for reason to part with his wife. He punishes Ottone by depriving him of all his possessions and expels him from Rome, while pardoning Drusilla for being a shining example for all wifes by sacrificing herself for her husband. Drusilla insists that she be allowed to accompany Ottone. Nero accepts and sends his soldiers to Ottavia to expel her from the country with a ship. Poppea appears, and the two of them celebrate the outcome of the events.

Signor, oggi rinasco ai primi fiati



Ottavia’s great farewell

Synopsis: Wistfully Ottavia enters the ship and must bid farewell to Rome.

For the second time Ottavia sings a great lament. The music of the accompaniment is sad and dissonances exude hopelessness.

A Dio Roma, a Dio Patria, amici a Dio  –  d’Oustrac



Synopsis: Arnalda triumphs, now she can move into the palace. The day of the coronation dawns, Nero proudly presents Poppea the splendor of the coronation. Consuls and tribunes appear at the celebrations.

A te, sovrana Augusta und Sinfonia  –  Fredman




Synopsis: Cupid triumphs, he has won the bet.

Coro di Amori: Or cantiamo giocondi  –  Jacobs



The heavenly final duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo»

Synopsis: In a solemn ceremony Poppea is crowned empress.

Monteverdi concludes this opera with a beautiful duet full of love and eroticism. The voices of Poppea and Nero literally embrace each other, follow each other, demand each other and are set in close intervals.

The piece was not included in the original version of Busenello’s libretto. It was written and composed afterwards (there are even opinions that claim it was not written by Monteverdi himself).

Pur ti miro, pur ti godo  –  Jaroussky / De Niese



As second version we hear a heavenly recording, revelling in slow tempo with eroticism that crackles:

Pur ti miro, pur ti godo  –  Cencic / Yoncheva





Recording Recommendation


UNITEL/DG, Rachel Yakar, Trudeliese Schmidt, Eric Tappy, Paul Esswood, Matti Salminen, Janet Perry. Alexander Oliver under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Monteverdi Ensemble of the Zurich Opera House




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA by Claudio Monteverdi.




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