Libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello
Music by Claudio Monteverdi
Italian Baroque opera reached its full development, known as opera seria, by the early 1720’s and dominated Europe for most of the remainder of the century. L’Incoronazion di Poppaea is one of my favorite Baroque operas; for its seemingly superficial plot, its dark depths, its struggles, its ironies.
Ellen Rosand has a wonderful article entitled “Seneca and the Interpretation of L’Inocoronazione di Poppaea” and if you have access to JSTOR you should go read right now.
There are two pivotal points in her essay that I love: her careful observation of the personalities of Busenello the librettist and Monteverdi the composer, and the way she helps the reader see the shift of meaning in the opera when the music interprets the libretto.
And that’s the fascinating point: that music interprets the libretto, not the other way around. We can talk about music all we want; we have, for many years, and will continue to do so. But in the end we have to stop talking and simply listen. Words cannot describe music but, as Monteverdi’s seconda prattica illustrates, music can describe words – and a great deal more.
Rosand explains that Busenello was a member of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a group of elite intellectuals that “functioned as the unofficial seat of political power in
for several decades” (p. 36). But aside from its political interests, “the
group wielded its influence primarily through the publications of its members,
most of the prodigious writers of novels, moral essays, religious tracts, and
academic discourses” (p. 36). Venice
Busenello himself gives the best summation of the Incogniti, describing their preference “for present over past (or future)…modern taste rather than classical doctrine justified not only their religious and moral beliefs but their operatic activities as well” (p.38). Busenllo continues, “this opera [L’Incoronazione di Poppaea] has the scent of the modern taste. It is not based on ancient rules…” he explains that the Icogniti were able to “argue any side of a question with equal conviction, they enjoyed equivocation and ambivalence, the irony of multiple meanings” (p.38).
Busenllo, concerned with multiple meanings and with a taste for the iornic, writes a libretto full of tension; the frailty of the body and the immortality of the soul, “the decadence of Rome, on the one hand, while on the other it suggests that pleasures of the flesh are transitory, that the victory of love over reason is empty and temporary” (p. 39).
Considering the opera from this perspective we can see two warring factions: the logic, reason, and moderation embodied in the character of Seneca and the impulsiveness, emotion, and passion of Nero and Poppaea.
This interpretation is satisfying, something for us to delve into instead of the superficial plot of “love conquers all.” But this is, after all, an opera and, as Rosand realizes, “what we believe, finally, is the music” (p. 52).
Claudio Monteverdi “was no Incognito” (p. 53). He was an opera composer deeply concerned with the meaning of words and their emotional content. He is interested in people, in right and wrong, and not in abstract thinking, multiple meanings, or conflicting symbolism. With this perspective Monteverdi transforms the libretto by manipulation of the inflection, the affect, the overall text setting. Suddenly the ambivalent characters of Busenello’s libretto are fallible yet likeable men and women as they come to life in Monteverdi’s music.
Nero struggles with his new self as “intoxicated lover…and the responsible ruler” (p.55) while Poppaea’s insecurities about her actions take shape when, conflicting with her plans, she truly falls in love.
Seneca, cast as a bass to contrast with Nero’s quavering tenor, has a melodic and florid part previously unknown to bass singers. The character becomes profound and is raised to a higher morality than Busenello intended. Seneca’s death is no longer depicted as the weak effort of a beaten man, but the heroic act of a weather soldier who goes to his reward and rest.
Poppaea, newly crowned, stands in victory alongside her king, basking in the praises of
’s citizens – but wait, what are they
doing? Why do the smiling people, their gestures sincere, their laudations
appropriate, sing in stylized laughter? Such long trills of bubbling, mocking
Monteverdi’s music, wordlessly, has the last laugh.