Poppea (16th century painting)
L'incoronazione di Poppea
Claudio Monteverdi's opera in a new performing edition created by Mark Streshinsky and Gilbert Martinez.
Poppea is one of the earliest operas. But even in 1642 when it was written, sensuality ruled the day. Emperor Nero can’t get his mind off the beautiful Poppea. He thinks about her more than he thinks about his country. He certainly thinks about her more than he thinks about the Empress.
Nero is Christine Brandes, international recording artist famed for her baroque portrayals. Poppea is Emma McNairy, last seen on the WEO stage as Zerbinetta in our Ariadne auf Naxos. Otone, Poppea’s spurned lover, is Ryan Belongie, our countertenor from Xerxes. The cast also includes Tonia D'Amelio, Erin Neff, Brian Thorsett, and Paul Thompson. Mark Streshinsky directs and MusicSources Artistic Director Gilbert Martinez conducts from the harpsichord. Projection design is by Lucas Krech.
Presented in collaboration with MusicSources.
Read the Synopsis of the opera.
Conductor Gilbert Martinez writes about updating baroque operas in a short article, Making the Ancient Modern.
Read about the historical Poppea.
View a gallery of photographs from our production.
Listen to a short interview with Gilbert Martinez at KDFC-FM.
Read about L'incoronazione di Poppea at Wikipedia.
Download the Poppea program [pdf].
• Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Poppea is supported in part
by a grant from the
National Endowment for the Arts
L’incoronazione di Poppea
Photographs by Jamie Buschbaum of L’incoronazione di Poppea.
Christine Brandes as Nerone, Emma McNairy as Poppea
Tonia D'Amelio as Drucilla, Paul Thompson as Seneca
Erin Neff as Ottavia
Ryan Belongie as Ottone
Bryan Thorsett as Arnalta
Making the Ancient Modern
by Gilbert Martinez, Artistic Director, MusicSources
Some months ago, when it was announced that West Edge Opera would be performing Claudio Monteverdi's masterpiece L'Incornazione di Poppea, I received a phone call from an anxious early music aficionado. "Will this be a period staging?" queried the caller. I politely hinted that it would be an updated setting. A cold thud from the unidentified antiquarian ended the conversation.
Twelfth Night with Stephen Fry & Mark Rylance
It's unfortunate, since I would have liked to ask a few questions myself. For example, when I ask most Shakespeare fans if they prefer to see the Bard's plays done with period settings, i.e., using authentic Elizabethan pronunciation and an all male cast performing the women's roles, they consider it an option, but usually a novelty at best. The reason? Most modern audiences would be bewildered at the sound of the English language of Shakespeare's time. It is so utterly foreign to modern English speakers that it would render much important drama incomprehensible.
Baroque opera is another beast. It is a form of musical theater that is just now getting its due. There have been notable attempts at giving audiences a taste of this type of theater, in particular the glorious pioneering efforts of Alan Curtis at Innsbruck Early Music Festival, Jean-Claude Malgoire at the English Bach Festival, and latterly Nicholas McGegan at the Gottingen Handel Festival. Many of these trailblazing productions of Handel, Rameau and Gluck have made use of elaborate stage machinery, period dance, and a highly stylized vocabulary of movement from the singers.
Baroque opera at Cesky Krumlov
It should be noted that the label "Baroque opera" encompasses about 200 years of theatrical works, but one size does not fit all. For the operas of Handel and Rameau, there is far more source material giving us good clues about what happened on stage. Physical movement and acting style was documented more thoroughly. Actual late 18th century theaters survive with original sets and machinery, notably in Drottningholm and Cesky Krumlov.
Georg Friedrich Händel
Nearly 100 years separate Monteverdi and Cavalli's works from those of Handel or Rameau. Current trends in the "Early Music" world find no contradiction in imposing 18th century French gestique on an Italian work of the 17th century. I would argue that a modernized setting, if done smartly, would serve the drama better in the case of Venetian opera than a feigned attempt at period theater, using irrelevant conventions from the late Baroque.
In the case of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, we can see in the two principal sources of the opera (manuscripts from Venice and Naples) that the work was subject to revision. We don't really know if these two sources stem from actual performances or if they come from Monteverdi's immediate circle. It is generally accepted nowadays that Monteverdi did not write all of it. Rather than spill ink on choosing either the Naples or Venice version, it should be noted that the two sources imply changing tastes. The Venice version has a prologue, and brief appearances of Amore and Mercury. We can see that the presence of the gods and spectacular machinery were not a key element. The Naples version, by contrast, has an amplified scene with Venus, Cupid, and a chorus of cupids after the coronation.
Christine Brandes & Emma McNairy in rehearsal
Photograph by Jamie Buschbaum
In our version, we take the spirit of this respectful type of adaptation, tightening scenes and focusing on the central characters of the drama. Audiences of Monteverdi's time would have been fully aware of Tacitus and the historical Poppea. They also would have been aware of any deviations from the real story. We attempt to provide this context by the way of our setting, making the political and social context of the characters even more accessible.
Our musical presentation conforms to what we know about Venetian theaters in the 17th century. Rather than employing large orchestras, the Venetian theaters relied on rich continuo accompaniments and light accompaniment from bowed instruments of the violin family. The West Edge Baroque Orchestra will utilize two harpsichords, theorbo, archlute and baroque double harp, giving emphasis to singing actors with an entirely conversational approach to singing. Additionally, a small violin band punctuates each scene with short ritornelli, as indicated in the score and with little elaboration.
Our intention is to create a documented piece that can be done economically, not just by West Edge, but also by small companies and schools throughout the country. The concept for the show will illustrate the consequences of a leader gone wrong—Emperor Nero betrayed his people and his country. We will use projections and modern plot devices to create a production that resonates this theme, including video and still imagery designed by Lucas Krech to create an immersive performance environment in which to place this fascinating and hauntingly beautiful work.
We look forward to sharing this with you on Friday, February 1, and hope that you will join us.
Synopsis for the West Edge Opera version of Poppea
by Mark Streshinsky
Christine Brandes & Emma McNairy in rehearsal
Photograph by Jamie Buschbaum
Ottavia, attended by her lady in waiting Drusilla, seeks the counsel of the wise Seneca, advisor to Nero. Ottavia is despondent over Nero's attention to Poppea. Seneca urges Ottavia to maintain her composure and dignity. Nero arrives to tell Seneca that he has decided he is above the law, and plans to banish Ottavia to marry Poppea. Seneca predicts a dark time for the nation. The visibly shaken Nero is comforted by Poppea, and he is so moved that he declares to her that she will be Empress. Poppea, seeing Seneca as an obstacle, urges Nero to deal with him. As Nero departs to make plans, Ottone confronts Poppea, begging her to return to him. Poppea rebukes him, saying that she now belongs to Nero. Ottone realizes that life as Poppea's former lover could be a dangerous one. Drusilla, secretly in love with Ottone, sees her chance to flirt with him. Ottone realizes the love Drusilla can offer would be the opposite of the one he had with Poppea, and he is soon ready to declare his love for Drusilla.
In his chamber, Seneca reflects on his long and satisfying life. He has been discredited by Nero and feels that his place is now in heaven. He writes his final words and then takes the steps necessary to end his life.
Poppea is elated about the death of Seneca and now feels assured that her place as Nero's bride will be secured. Arnalta complains that Poppea thinks about nothing but her wedding. As Poppea begins to fall asleep, Arnalta sings her a lullaby. Ottone, disguised in Drusilla's clothing enters Poppea's chamber. He is about to murder her when Arnalta is alerted and calls the guards. Ottone escapes, but the women have recognized him as Drusilla.
In Ottavia's chamber, Arnalta comes to accuse Drusilla of Poppea's attempted murder. Nero arrives and immediately suspects Ottavia as the mastermind. Drusilla realizes that Ottone's life is in jeopardy and declares herself the guilty one. Ottone arrives having heard that Drusilla has been accused. He admits blame and also admits that the Empress charged him with the task. Nero orders the legal banishment of all three and is relieved to see Poppea alive as she enters the room. He explains what has happened and tells the happy Poppea to ready herself for their wedding and her coronation.
Ready to board transport to her exile, the distraught Ottavia bids farewell to her country.
Poppea is ready to be crowned empress. She and Nero declare their love for each other.
The historical Poppea
Sabina Poppæa (School of Fontainebleau, ca. 1550)
The historical Poppea Sabina was born in 30 AD in Pompeii. She was first married at age 14 to Rufrius Crispinus, the leader of the Praetorian Guard during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. He was executed after Nero became Emperor. During this marriage, Poppaea gave birth to a son, who, after her death, was drowned by Nero while out on a fishing trip.
Her second husband was Otho, of an ancient and noble line, descended from princes of Etruria. Once Nero's best friend, this friendship ended when Nero fell in love with Poppea and she became Nero's mistress, divorced Otho (who was sent away to the remote province of Lusitania where he remained for 10 years), and focused her attentions solely on becoming empress of Rome and Nero's new wife. The opera calls Otho "Ottone," and describes him as Poppea's discarded lover, not husband. (Interestingly, Otho succeeded Nero briefly as Emperor after Nero's death.)
Poppea bore Nero one daughter, Claudia Augusta, who died at only four months of age. According to one story, while she was awaiting the birth of her second child, she quarreled fiercely with Nero over his spending too much time at the races. In a fit of rage, Nero kicked her in the abdomen, causing her death. Other accounts say she died in childbirth. Whichever story is true, Nero went into deep mourning. She was given a state funeral and Nero praised her during the funeral eulogy and gave her divine honors.
Nero himself died only three years later, committing suicide after he learned that the Senate had declared him a public enemy and it was their intention to execute him by beating him to death.