In opera singers express their emotions directly to each other and indirectly to the audience—the fusing of drama between singer and audience is what powers opera to this day. And this is where it began, in earnest, with Monteverdi’s late opera Poppea, which was premiered to a paying audience in a public theatre. No more churches. No more ducal palaces. No more myths. A real story about real people with real problems expressing real emotions to the public at large. And yes, that fiddling emperor Nero is one of the first male superstar roles in opera history. This duet between Poppea and Nero closes the opera—no need to show what happens next, as everyone in the audience would have known the bloody story (Nero murders Poppea and their son and commits suicide, bringing an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty). Instead of that melodramatic ending (something that opera would come to specialize in during the 19th century), what we are left with is a moment so stunning, so modern, it is hard to believe that before Poppea nothing, and I mean nothing, sounded like this. This love song—I gaze upon you, I possess you—seems to affirm their wanton greed and ambition, a morality play turned on its head. Monteverdi’s none too subtle political message—Rome is once again in the hands of a Nero, threatening Venetian liberties–would not have been lost on his audience. The Professor claims to hate opera. I dare him to hate this.
Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea “Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo“:
A few words about this recording as well. At the end, you will glimpse William Christie in the pit, conducting and playing one of two harpsichords (yes, Gert, I have not forgotten—lots of harpsichords to come!). His Les Arts Florissant is quite simply the best and most important early music group ever. I see them every chance I get—more than a dozen concerts and operas and counting. A native of Buffalo, New York, Christie is the best in the business. We’ll see a lot more of them later—they are to the Baroque what the Tallis Scholars are to the Renaissance. Soprano Danielle De Niese, who plays Poppea here, is also an American and an early music specialist. I’m a fan and will say she’s never sounded better than here, under Christie’s baton. De Niese has a remarkable singing partner in the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. In Monteverdi’s age, Nero would have been sung by a castrato—male sopranos who were castrated as boys to preserve their voice. They were the superstars of the old operatic role and, obvious cruelness aside, I will note that they were left “fully functional” and in some cases quite famously so. Following the demise of the practice of castrating boys for our entertainment, castrato roles eventually went to women, mostly mezzo-sopranos. In recent years, countertenors have started to claim back these historically male roles. A countertenor sings only in his head voice—falsetto—which gives his tone an ethereal quality. While many countertenors of old had weak voices, the modern countertenor can hold his own with a female soprano, as this selection attests.