The Coronation of Poppea synopsis
Music by Monteverdi
Libretto by G. F. Busenello after Tacitus
First performed: 1642
Fortune, Virtue and Love vie with each other for supremacy.
Ottone longs to see Poppea once again. However, he soon realizes that Nerone is with Poppea and that she has betrayed him. Liberto and Lucano grumble about their lot and gossip about Nerone’s infatuation with Poppea, the plight of the empress Ottavia, and the corruption of the court. After a night of love-making, Poppea and Nerone take leave of one another. Before he departs, Nerone promises Poppea that she will take Ottavia’s place as empress. With her old nurse, Arnalta, Poppea muses on her ambition for the throne. She boasts that with Love on her side nothing can stand in her way; Arnalta, however, warns her that she’s playing a dangerous game.
Ottavia laments her situation: rejected by Nero, she faces losing both her husband and her position. She dismisses her Nurse’s suggestion that she take a lover as consolation. The elder statesman Seneca offers Ottavia different advice: she should exercise restraint and maintain her dignity. Valletto stands up for Ottavia and ridicules Seneca. Seneca is joined by Nerone, who informs him that he intends to divorce Ottavia and marry Poppea. Seneca’s remonstrations only serve to anger Nerone.
Poppea recognizes that Seneca represents the greatest obstacle in her path to the throne. She therefore preys on Nerone’s weaknesses and insinuates that he is ruled by the old philosopher – that Seneca is the true power behind the throne. The emperor immediately sends off Liberto with the order that Seneca must commit suicide.
Ottone reproaches Poppea for her infidelity, but she dismisses his entreaties and leaves. Drusilla, who is in love with Ottone, rebukes him for his pointless fidelity to Poppea. He decides to forget Poppea and offers Drusilla his heart; however, it is a promise he knows he cannot keep.
Seneca is alone in his garden when Mercury, messenger of the gods, appears and tells him that he should prepare for death. Seneca welcomes this news. Liberto reluctantly delivers Nerone’s decree. Surrounded by his friends, Seneca stoically prepares to commit suicide.
Valletto and the Damigella make love.
Nerone, elated by news of Seneca’s death, joins his friend Lucano in praising Poppea’s beauty.
Ottavia, unable to bear the indignity of her situation any longer, commands Ottone to kill Poppea, and suggests that he will be less easily apprehended if he disguises himself as a woman. She threatens him with blackmail when at first he rejects her orders.
Drusilla rejoices in Ottone’s love. Ottone reveals that Ottavia has ordered him to kill Poppea and asks Drusilla if he may borrow her clothes for his disguise. Drusilla, realizing her opportunity to be rid of Poppea once and for all, readily agrees.
In her garden, Poppea prays that Love will ensure her marriage to Nerone. Soothed by Arnalta’s lullaby, she falls asleep. Love appears and will protect Poppea while she rests. Ottone, disguised as Drusilla, steals into the garden and attempts to murder Poppea. Love, however, stays his hand and the alarm is raised. Ottone manages to escape, but not before Poppea and Arnalta mistakenly identify the assassin as Drusilla. Love is jubilant at having saved Poppea’s life.
Drusilla rejoices in the thought that her rival will soon be dead and Ottone will be hers alone. Arnalta, the lictor and his officers seize Drusilla. Before Nerone they accuse her of the attempted murder of Poppea. Although at first she denies the charge, when threatened with torture she pleads guilty rather than betray Ottone. Ottone steps forward and confesses to his crime, blaming Ottavia for instigating it. Nerone shows mercy to Drusilla, but exiles Ottone. Drusilla begs to go into exile with Ottone, and Nerone grants her plea. The emperor now has the perfect excuse to repudiate Ottavia and he formally banishes her from Rome. He breaks the news to Poppea that she will be his new wife.
No longer empress, Ottavia takes leave of her homeland. Arnalta congratulates herself on her new, elevated position as the empress Poppea’s nurse. Venus approves the union of Nerone and Poppea.
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