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Unjust Rewards: Monteverdi's 'Poppea'

Claudio Monteverdi didn't exactly invent opera, but he came close. His Orfeo, from 1607, is not only among the earliest operas ever written, but it's also the first truly great opera — the first to fully explore what the brand new art form was truly capable of expressing.

More than three decades later, when Monteverdi completed The Coronation of Poppea, he had not only become the driving force behind a new and unique form of entertainment, he had also taken opera in an entirely new direction.

Orfeo was written for a princely court, and paid for by rich noblemen. Their tastes tended toward fantastic, mythical stories — and away from realism. Stories about real people, with real failings, might have struck too close to home for the rulers of royal courts.

The opera concludes with Poppea and Nero singing "Pur ti miro" — "I gaze at you" — one of opera's most sensuous duets. In this recording, it's sung by Sylvia McNair as Poppea, and Dana Hanchard as Nero.

When Monteverdi looked at the operas those rulers preferred, he noted that "the interlocutors are Winds, Cupids, little Zephyrs and Sirens" — and he wondered whether opera could ever "move the passions" with characters like those.

Monteverdi wanted to write operas about believable people and plausible events, not fanciful characters plopped into magical settings. That meant turning to history for his stories, instead of relying on myths and legends. The Coronation of Poppea is the first known opera to be based on actual, historical events, and it relies heavily on the decidedly human failings that drove them.

Surprisingly, one key aspect of Poppea was so bold — at least by modern standards — that few operas have ever repeated it: The story's outcome is morally suspect. For centuries, most classic operas, no matter how lurid and violent, have been fundamentally rooted in traditional, widely-held values: Loyalty is prized, betrayal is punished, faith leads to redemption and only the purest of loves can truly flourish.

Monteverdi's Poppea, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the libertine intellectual currents of its time. In the course of the action a faithful wife is humiliated and disgraced, and a loyal fiancé is cruelly rejected. The apparent villains, two illicit lovers who have destroyed their more principled enemies, are left to enjoy a life of wealth, power and passion — at least for the time being.

The Coronation of Poppea comes to World of Opera in a production by Houston Grand Opera, starring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role.

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