Well, I think I could have done without seeing this. It’s not awful – don’t get me wrong. But it’s not fantastic enough to spend two and a half hours on given that there are several other newer and I think much better DVDs of this opera out there.
This production is from 1993, and is conducted by René Jacobs. I am generally a fan of Jacobs’ approach to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, and in this instance I don’t feel like I have anything much to complain about as far as conducting goes. Nothing leapt out at me while listening to this, but neither did any specific aspect of the feel of it seem off or unusual.
In general, I suppose I have not yet had what you might call my Monteverdian Moment. I enjoy his music, but I don’t listen to it often. There are parts of this opera that I like, but it doesn’t feel as varied or expressive to me as, say, Handel.
So, this is an opera that is loosely based on historical events. It’s about the Roman emperor Nero and his lover Poppea. (Does anyone else remember that CD-burning program from about 2000 or so that was called ‘Nero’? Because you were burning a (CD-)ROM? I remember that. O happy first days of internet piracy!) Nero likes Poppea an awful lot. Poppea likes Nero an awful lot too, especially because he’s the emperor. If you are curious, Nero doesn’t have the neck-beard in this opera that he apparently had in real life, i.e. a beard – this was a deliberate effect, not an unhappy genetic accident – around his face but not on his face. So anyway. Poppea and Nero.
But everyone has both a complication and an advisor. Poppea’s complication is this guy named Ottone/Otho, who she used to pretend to care about or something but who she has since spurned. Ottone is mighty unhappy about this. Poppea also has a nurse who gives her actually not unreasonable advice, early on, that she is going to get herself into trouble with all this ambition. Within the space of this opera, the nurse turns out to be wrong, because what Poppea gets is hitched to the emperor, but the nurse is right, big picture, because according to Tacitus, Nero flies into a rage over something a few months later and kicks the pregnant Poppea to death.
Nero’s complication is that he’s married to this woman named Ottavia, who is from one of the finest families in Rome and who is wicked pissed off at Nero for all his infidelities. Her nurse – everyone’s got one! – tells her to go have fun and humiliate Nero. Ottavia, being virtuous, doesn’t think this is a good idea.
Nero’s nurse advisor is Seneca, who is dead by the end of Act I. (Act I and Acts II-III taken together are about equal in length – Seneca’s presence in this opera is very weighty, which makes a certain amount of sense given that he’s this figure of virtue and the opera ends with the triumph of virtue’s opposite. If we didn’t hear him as much in the beginning, we’d feel his absence less at the end. Musically too – he’s a bass and I think pretty much everyone else in the story is a soprano, mezzo, countertenor or tenor.)
Seneca dies because he opposes the intrigues of the wily Poppea, who in consequence asks Nero to have Seneca killed. Romans were either very classy or very cruel with political assassinations, depending on how you look at it. The preferred way with prominent men like Seneca was to inform them that they needed to die, at which point the victim would take care of matters himself by slitting his wrists in the tub. This is what Seneca does.
So, Seneca is dispatched, Ottavia – whose virtue has certain limits, I guess – decides to take matters into her own hands and orders her own little murder. She asks Ottone, who is mad that Poppea doesn’t love him any more, to murder Poppea. After a little bit of angst, he’s fine with this. And he enlists the help of Drusilla. (Lest you think that Monteverdi’s opera is in fact some sort of elaborate Buffy fanfiction: it’s not that Drusilla, because if it had been, the murder plan would definitely have worked. Drusilla was a real name in ancient Rome – there was a prominent family called the Drusi who were related to several early emperors.) This Monteverdi Drusilla is a bit of a tool. Overcome by love for Ottone, she agrees to switch clothes with him so that he can go and murder Poppea. It does not seem to occur to her that she might get in trouble. I can’t tell whether she’s witless with lust or merely stupid.
Ottone can’t murder Poppea, though. Cupid prevents him, he scurries away, everyone thinks he’s Drusilla and Drusilla is almost killed but she gives up Ottone, who gives up Ottavia, Ottavia is banished, Nero weds Poppea, who gets her crown, and the usual ‘order is restored!’ moment at the end of the opera is sort of a triumph of misrule, which I think is actually pretty awesome, although presumably the audience was supposed to know that it didn’t last.
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