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Love and Infamy: TheParadox of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea Edward B. Savage L’Incoronazione di Poppea, as conceived by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and his librettist Busenello, appears to transform a totally dishonorable episode in Roman history into an opera which glorifies the most infamous of imperial consorts. The love of the wicked Nero and the ambitious Poppaea Sabina at first may seem to emulate the idealized love of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance— courtly love—and in a sense the manner of presentation may even seem to justify their passion. We may be reminded of Tristan und Isolde, in which illicit (and technically incestuous) love engages our sympathy. Indeed, some of the devices used in both operas, notably dramatic irony and, to a lesser extent, the leit motif, are common to Wagner and Monteverdi. Wagner, however, drew his source from idealized fiction in courtly romance, while Monteverdi and Busenello drew for their libretto from unidealized history. Hence to transform the condemned incestuous lust recorded in history into condoned idealized courtly love would have proven to be a greater task than was Wagner’s transformation of the Tristan and Isolt of romance into the Tristan and Isolde of nineteenth-century opera. I contend, however, that Monteverdi neither intended nor wished to enlist our sympathy for Poppaea and Nero, and that in his opera, despite outward idyllic appearances, they remain essentially the infamous pair that history records them to be. The historical source of LTncoronazione di Poppea is recorded in Book XIV of the Annals of Tacitus and in Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The Emperor Nero repudiates his wife Octavia in favor of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of the Roman nobleman Otho. In turn, Poppaea repudiates her husband, marries Nero and is crowned Empress. Together, the couple bring about the deaths of Octavia, of Nero’s mother Agrippina, of Nero’s tutor the philosopher Seneca, and of Seneca’s successor the poet Lucan. Finally, after three years of marriage and when Poppaea is pregnant, Nero kicks her to death. Of this history, Busenello utilized for his libretto only those events leading up to the coronation of Poppaea. He also incorporated the repudiation and exile (but not the death) of Octavia, the death of Seneca and the elevation of Lucan. Thus he transformed, at least 197 198 Comparative Drama outwardly, a sordid historical episode into the following tale of courtly love: Ottone, enraged over the infidelity of his betrothed Poppea with the Emperor Nerone, turns for comfort to a former love Drusilla, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Ottavia.l Ottone and Ottavia, both jealous over the love Nerone and Poppea bear for each other, conspire with Drusilla to plot the death of Poppea. Through Cupid’s divine intervention, however, Nerone learns of the plot and exiles the three conspirators. Seneca, also a supporter of Ottavia, is disgraced and is forced to commit suicide. The poet Lucano is elevated in Seneca’s place, and Poppea is crowned Empress of Rome. The opera closes with an ecstatic love duet between Nerone and Poppea. Hence, it would seem, in the libretto historical actions of the lowest and most unvarnished treachery perpetrated by two totally unscrupulous people besotted with lust and power are metamorphosed into expedient dramatic action justifiably committed for love. As Raymond Leppard says, “The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love, and we are not expected to mind.”2 From the above skeletal outline of the plot of L’lncoronazione di Poppea, one is inclined to agree with Mr. Leppard in condemning Monteverdi’s “morality.” I contend, however, that Busenello’s plot is, on the contrary, one of the most moral in all opera, and that this morality is sustained by the phenomenon of dramatic irony. This irony is created not only by what is seen and heard in the opera in light of what happened in history, but also in the musico-dramatic treatment of the dominant thematic interest, that of the vicissitudes of erotic love and uncontrolled passion. In the first scene of the opera the dramatic as well as the thematic interest, as defined...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 197-207
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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