Singing while Rome burns

Monteverdi’s 1643 evocative opera ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ strikes a resonant chord even today.

‘L’incoronazione di Poppea (photo credit: Yonatan Dror)
‘L’incoronazione di Poppea
(photo credit: Yonatan Dror)
T he opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea) by Claudio Monteverdi, based on a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice as part of the 1643 carnival season. However, Moti Averbuch finds it a little hard to believe that the work was created so long ago.
“It is an amazing opera and so ahead of its time,” says Averbruch, designer and director of the upcoming Rubin Academy production, conducted by musical director David Shemer.
It was certainly a trailblazer in terms of the storyline, as it was one of the first operas to use historical events and real characters. It tells the tale of political intrigue and troubled love affairs in the most dramatic fashion and describes how Poppaea, mistress of Roman emperor Nero, manages to fulfill her ambition to be crowned empress. But that achievement comes at a heavy price, as the emperor gradually descends into madness, and his world eventually crumbles around him.
“This is an extraordinary work,” says Averbruch. “The most incredible thing about it is its modernity. It is just so much more advanced compared with what was written later. It doesn’t have the structure of the classic opera, with arias and duets. It is far more parlando (a speech-like form of singing).
Monteverdi developed this style a lot.”
Monteverdi also pioneered the use of specific musical devices to signify moods and situations.
The libretto, he says, is also a progressive creation. “Busenello belonged to a group called [Accademia degli] Incogniti, an academic group of people with liberal ideas based in republican Venice, which is surrounded by princedoms.
And both Busenello and Monteverdi lived in Mantua [in northern Italy] under the madman.” The latter refers to Vincenzo II, who was a vicious and mentally unstable ruler.
Not surprisingly, the opera has a strong political message to convey.
“Busenello wrote a political work, per se, and Monteverdi comes along and adds his own content to it,” explains Averbruch. “There was no tailoring done between the libretto and the music. Sometimes it all flows along nicely, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
In addition to Nero and Poppea, one of the main characters is firstcentury Stoic philosopher Seneca, who keeps his nimble fingers firmly on the imperial strings.
The plot of the opera is highly complex, and the audiences at the time would have had to be conversant with the source material in order to follow the onstage action.
Averbruch surmises that was the case.
“We are talking about a 17thcentury Venetian audience who probably knew the writings of [firstcentury Roman historian] Tacitus by heart. The members of the audience were also able to appreciate that what they were seeing on the stage was a variation on historic events but with lots of irony interwoven into it.”
That, says Averbruch, is not necessarily the case today. “I would doubt that all contemporary audiences appreciate that they are witnessing a satirical rendition of historical events,” he says.
“The opera is very cerebral. The two protagonists are Nero and Seneca, and the relationship between them is very complex. In the opera, we catch up with Nero in his later stages, after he has been in power for five years, at the interface between Nero as a balanced person and Nero as a crazy man.
Busenello marks the coronation of Poppea as the point at which Nero loses his reason and moves on from being an enlightened ruler, who rules through Seneca the philosopher, and who is his mentor.”
They say that love conquers all, and in Nero’s case, romance led him straight into the arms of catastrophe and marked the beginning of the end.
“Nero marries Poppea and divorces Octavia, who is the natural heiress of the Roman imperia dynasty. Seneca tells Nero that he is going against the Roman people and against the senate, and Nero tells him – in far less polite words – that the senate and the people can take a running jump,” says Averbruch.
The emperor’s former teacher tries to explain that such a show of force is not a particularly wise move. “Seneca tells Nero that when you use excessive force, you only weaken yourself,” continues Averbruch, adding that the plot could seamlessly fit into today’s current affairs.
“The opera demonstrates the close connection between sex and politics.
Nero says: ‘The law is for servants. If I want, I can rescind the old law and make a new one.’ When Seneca tells him to be wary of using too much force, Nero says: ‘The strong will always be right. Power is the law.’ Doesn’t that sound just a little familiar in this day and age?” says Averbruch.
The action and messages conveyed in L’incoronazione di Poppea, not to mention the music, have proven to be hits over the centuries in various versions. After its premiere in 1643, the opera was ignored until revived in Naples in 1651 but was once again neglected until the rediscovery of the score in 1888. It became the subject of scholarly attention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and since the 1960s the opera has been performed and recorded numerous times.
Besides enjoying a good evening’s entertainment, the audiences here may very well go home with some food for thought.
L’incoronazione di Poppea will be performed on March 15 at 1 p.m. & March 16 at 8:30 p.m. at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem. For tickets, call 052-383-6601.