SYNOPSIS AND LIBRETTO
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L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello
Music by Claudio Monteverdi
The goddesses Virtue and Fortune debate who is the more powerful of the two; the god of Love joins the argument and boasts that he is the one who will prevail by the end of the day.
Ottone returns in the early morning from his distant embassy, and discovers some servants of the Emperor in front of his wife’s rooms. He understands that Poppea is having an affair with Nerone. The Emperor’s servants complain about their obligations, gossip about the scandal of the Emperor Nerone’s and Poppea’s affair, about the statesman Seneca, and about the bad state of the empire. They are silenced by the arrival of Nerone who bids farewell to Poppea, promising her that as soon as he can repudiate his wife, he will crown Poppea Empress of Rome. Nerone returns to his imperial duties, and Poppea gloats to her nurse that she will soon realize her ambitions. Arnalta cautions her not to trust in fickle fortune, but Poppea insists that Love and Fortune will do battle for her cause.
The scorned Empress Ottavia laments her state; she rails against Nerone and Poppea, and curses the fate of women. Ottavia’s nurse enters and tries to console her, suggesting that she take a lover of her own in revenge. Ottavia disdains this advice. Seneca, Nerone’s tutor, philosophizes that Ottavia’s tears are beneath her; he advises stoic dignity in the face of adversity. Ottavia rejects these ideas as specious and useless to her suffering. The page Valetto mocks Seneca, and threatens to harass him unless he helps the Empress. The goddess Pallas Athena appears to Seneca and warns him that Mercury shall visit him when it is time for him to die.
Nerone enters, and announces to Seneca his intention to repudiate Ottavia and marry Poppea. Seneca warns him that his judgment is affected by his feelings. Nerone retorts that his powers are above the law, and ends the argument by insisting that he will have his own way. The Emperor then goes to find comfort with his mistress: Poppea, aware that Seneca is an obstacle to her ambition, suggests to Nerone that Seneca boasts of being the real power behind the throne. Nerone, outraged, commands that Seneca commit suicide immediately for this treason.
Ottone complains to Poppea of her infidelity to him; she tells him that it is Fortune’s doing, not hers, as she must follow her fate. He persists until, weary of his entreaties, she admits belonging to Nerone. Ottone is left alone, raging about his misfortune. Drusilla, a lady at court in love with Ottone, wonders why he continues to be faithful to the fickle Poppea. Ottone claims to be free now to love Drusilla, but admits to himself that he is still in love with Poppea.
Mercury appears to Seneca, and tells him of his impending death. Liberto, a captain in the Praetorian Guard, arrives to deliver the news to Seneca that Nerone has demanded his suicide. Seneca’s circle tries to persuade him against it, but he stoically accepts his fate.
Damigella, a maid to the Empress, and Valetto, the page, engage in youthful flirtation. They tease and play, then leave together to enjoy their love. Nerone celebrates Seneca’s death and orders his friend, the poet Lucano, to sing in praise of Poppea’s beauty.
Meanwhile, Ottavia, mad with jealousy, plots to kill Poppea. She commands Ottone to do the deed, counseling him to disguise himself in women’s clothing in order to go unnoticed by Nerone. Ottone protests, but Ottavia threatens to accuse him of rape if he doesn’t comply. Ottone despairs at having to kill the woman he still loves.
Drusilla rejoices at her good fortune, remembering Ottone’s vow of love. Ottone, torn between his feelings for Poppea and fear of Ottavia’s punishment, arrives to tell Drusilla of his dreaded task, and she offers to help by giving him some of her clothing to wear as a disguise.
Poppea invokes Love to help her become Empress. Arnalta still cautions her against ambition, but Poppea will not be swayed. She lies down to rest, while the Nurse sings a lullaby. As Poppea sleeps, Love is watching, and ready to guard her. Ottone slips in, disguised as Drusilla. As he is about to stab Poppea, Love awakens her, and she calls out in alarm. The plot foiled, Ottone, unrecognized, flees as Arnalta screams for help and Love sings of his triumph.
Drusilla rejoices, believing her rival to be dead, when Arnalta arrives with guards and accuses her of attempted murder. Brought before Nerone, Drusilla confesses to the deed in order to protect Ottone. Ottone arrives, protesting and claiming to be the guilty party, but reveals that he was acting under Ottavia’s orders. Nerone has now a reason to repudiate Ottavia and his mercy condemns Ottone and Drusilla to exile.
Nerone formally banishes Ottavia from the Empire. He then tells Poppea that he is free to marry her and make her Empress. Defeated, Ottavia bids farewell to Rome while Arnalta boasts that she has risen in social position and is now a fine lady.
The Tribunes and Consuls crown Poppea Empress of Rome, Love sings of his triumph, and Poppea and Nerone declare their passion for each other.
—Gilbert Blin & Ellen Hargis