Monteverdi's Final Masterpiece: The Coronation of Poppea

May 11, 2017

Monteverdi lived at the crossroads of the Renaissance and the Baroque, and his operas changed the course of music history. This week on Sunday Night at the Opera, tune in at 8:30 for Monteverdi's final masterpiece, "The Coronation of Poppea."

Claudio Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea)

Poppea: Danielle Borst
Nerone: Guillemette Laurens
Ottavia: Jennifer Larmore
Ottone: Axel Köhler
Seneca: Michael Schopper
Drusilla: Lena Lootens
Nutrice: Dominique Visse
Arnalta: Christoph Homberger
Lucano: Guy de Mey
Amore: Martina Bovet

Concerto Vocale
René Jacobs, conductor

Read the synopsis of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

Read along with a Italian-English translation of the libretto.

"Monteverdi invented opera." It's an assertion that you can find in textbooks and taught in Music 101 classes. I've said it myself.  

Unfortunately, it's not really the whole truth. Just like Thomas Edison didn't really invent the lightbulb so much as patent the most practical and marketable version, Monteverdi didn't so much invent opera as write the first popular ones. His advances in the art form ensured that it could blossom from its budding experimental early days and grow it to what it is today.

Who Really 'Invented' Opera?

In truth, "invented" isn't the right word. Like so many things without a definitive beginning, opera had more of a gradual blossoming than a concrete invention. That said, credit for "inventor of opera" generally goes to Jacopo Peri.

Jacopo Peri (1531-1633) was a Florentine singer and composer. He was also a member of the 'Florentine Camerata', a collective of philosophers, artisans, and noblemen engaged in researching what you can think of as the 16th-century version of historically informed performance. On the whole, the Camerata was unimpressed with the art of their day when compared to that of the ancient Greeks. So they set out to improve art and theater in Florence by, for lack of a better phrase, doing it like the Greeks had.

The most pressing question the Florentine Camerata sought to answer was: how, precisely, had the Greeks performed their famed comedies and tragedies? 

Their answer was that the ancient Greek plays had been sung. After all, Aristotle, in his statements about tragedy in Poetics, had stated that tragedies should use "language that has the embellishments of rhythm, melody and meter.... in some parts meter alone is employed, in others, melody."* 

And so the Florentine Camerata set about creating sung plays. Jacopo Peri wrote the first one, Dafne (1598 - now lost), performing it at that year's Carnival. A few years later, he followed Dafne with his highly successful L'Euridice (1600), which is now considered the earliest surviving opera.

As it happened, in the audience for L'Euridice, was none other than Claudio Monteverdi.

Monteverdi: Madrigals to Opera

Monteverdi would have been about 33 when he saw L'Euridice in 1600. He was already very well known for his madrigals, having published four collections of them by that point, and was composing largely for the Court of Mantua.

Whether or not seeing Peri's L'Euridice was a life-changing event for the young composer is hard to say. However, when Monteverdi published his fifth collection of madrigals in 1605, those works were marked by a change.

Monteverdi learned to compose in a late-Renaissance style, one he called the First Practice, and which emphasized reverence for melody and harmony over reverence for the words. This was a style that composers like Palestrina had perfected, and which Monteverdi considered sublime for religious music. But with his Fifth Book of Madrigals he also came to believe that in order to faithfully portray the humanity of a secular work, emphasis should be put on the poetry over the music. In other words, if the text called for "sighing," then the music should sigh too. Monteverdi called this emphasis on clearly portraying the text  the Second Practice.

With his change to the Second Practice composing style, Monteverdi became an opera composer.

Second Practice lent itself to opera, because it was far better for a narrative. It's no surprise, then, that two years after this Fifth Book of Madrigals was published and the Second Practice was introduced, Monteverdi completed his first opera, L'Orfeo. And he didn't stop there. A year later, he finished L'Arianna, and continued writing for nearly 40 years, one opera after the next, eventually completing nineteen in all. 

For much of his career as an opera composer, Monteverdi was also in charge of music at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, putting him at the center of all the musical innovations happening in Italy. As such, he was one of the most famous music makers in Europe, and his operas - as well as his four final collections of madrigals - had a substantial influence on composers all over the continent. Compared to his predecessors, Monteverdi created more believable characters, structured his work to better suit the dramatic arc of the story, and continually pushed the limits and boundaries of recitative, that operatic style of sing-speaking. 

The Lost Operas

Only three of Monteverdi's operas have stood the test of time: the first was L'Orfeo; the third to last, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; and the final opera, this week's feature opera,  L'Incoronazione di Poppea. There is also a surviving fragment from his his second opera, L'Arianna, entitled "Arianna's Lament."

Innumerable factors led to the loss of the majority of Monteverdi's operas. Of particular importance is that many operas were written for specific occasions - Carnival, weddings, triumphant victories in battle - and therefore were not intended to be preserved for posterity. Short sighted, perhaps, but that's how it was. However, bad luck also played a role with Monteverdi's operas. Unfortunately, he wrote many of his operas for the Court of Mantua, which in 1630 was sacked by Austrian-Hapsburg troops and destroyed, along with most of Monteverdi's operas. Furthermore, once at St. Mark's in Venice, more of his operas were the casualties of the plague that wracked Venice in 1637. 

Happily, the three operas do remain, and we can still bask in the beauty of Monteverdi's brilliance.

Learn more about Monteverdi's triology of operas from the Boston Early Music Festival. 

EXCERPTS 

The coronation of Poppea differed from Monteverdi's other operas because it decided to highlight the baser natures of humans, rather than the lofty natures of the gods. The final duet in the opera is one of the most poignant moments. Emperor Nero and Poppea wronged everyone around them in order to be together, and finally they succeed, celebrating with this gorgeous, intertwining melody. 

(Nero would go onto brutally murder Poppea when she was pregnant, a fact that would not have been lost of Monteverdi's audiences, and one that makes gives this music a haunting chill.)

The opera which really put Montverdi on the map as an opera composer was his second, L'Arianna, now lostFragments from L'Arianna, however do exist, because, thankfully, Monteverdi decided to publish some of it in several different variations. The most famous of these is in his Sixth Book of Madrigals from 1614. It's not hard to see why Monteverdi considered it some of his best music.

*Since the time of the Florentine Camerata, historians have done better research into how the Ancient Greeks performed their tragedies, and it's nothing like Jacopo Peri's opera. Amusingly then, Peri and the Camerata, in their attempt to recreate the past, ended up spawning something entirely new.