Major Operas | L’incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi | Early & Middle Baroque

The Coronation of Poppea

L’incoronazione di Poppea, composed in 1642, has been called Monteverdi’s greatest opera. It was one of the first operas to be based on history rather than mythology.

The action takes place in Rome in ad 65. The eponymous heroine is the mistress and, later, wife of the Emperor Nero. The libretto was by Busenello, who took his text from the annals of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus (ad 55–120). The opera received its first performance in Venice in 1643.

Poppea was written when Monteverdi was 76 and, by the standards of the seventeenth century, a very old man. Comparisons have been made with Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), who wrote his last opera, Falstaff (1893), in old age. Modern research has revealed that Poppea may not have been all Monteverdi’s own work. It was ascribed to him by Cristoforo Ivanovich (1628–89), an Italian librettist and theatre historian, but neither of the two extant scores of the opera mentions the composer. It appears that Monteverdi was assisted by other composers, notably Francesco Sacrati (1605–50). Sacrati is believed to have written the finale scene and most of the music sung by Ottone, who attempts to kill Poppea after she has jilted him.

Composed: 1642
Premiered: 1643, Venice
Libretto by Gian Francesco Busenello, after Tacitus and Suetonius


The figures of Fortuna (Fortune) and Virtù (Virtue) argue over who has the most power over mortals. Amore (Love, or Cupid) joins them, insisting that his superior power will shortly be proven.

Act I

Poppea’s husband, Ottone, returns to her palace to find Nero’s guard outside, confirming that she has taken Nero as her lover. Poppea and Nero take leave of each other, and Poppea confides in her nurse, Arnalta, her desire to be crowned empress. Meanwhile, Nero’s wife, Empress Octavia, laments her husband’s infidelity and is comforted by Seneca, a statesman and philospher. Returning home to his palace, Nero declares his intention to divorce Octavia and marry Poppea, making her empress. Seneca argues against this on both moral and political grounds, causing Nero’s temper to rise against him. Later, Poppea, overheard by Ottone, convinces Nero that Seneca is an obstacle to their love and must die. Ottone is then rebuked by Drusilla, a noblewoman who is in love with him, over his continuing love for Poppea. Ottone pledges himself to Drusilla.

Act II

The captain of Nero’s guards, Liberto, delivers Seneca’s death sentence from the emperor. Seneca gathers the members of his household around him and kills himself. While Poppea, overjoyed at the news of Seneca’s death, prays to Amore, Octavia orders Ottone to kill Poppea. He hesitates, torn between his love for her and her cruel betrayal, but eventually he agrees and asks Drusilla to help him by lending him some of her clothes. Dressed as Drusilla, Ottone creeps into Poppea’s chamber as she sleeps and tries to kill her. Cupid, however, protects her, and Ottone is unsuccessful. Poppea sees Ottone fleeing, pursued...

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