Composer: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Piece:  Act III, Finale from The Coronation of Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea)

Date: 1642

Form: Opera Scene

Libretto: by Giovanni Busenello. Based on Roman History

Although the earliest operas derived their plots from Greek mythology, Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, a late work from his Venetian period, instead turned to history. By this time, the first public opera houses had been opened in Venice. Opera was moving out of the palace to become a widely cultivated form of popular entertainment. In the early court operas, Monteverdi used a diverse orchestra consisting of those instruments that were readily available. But in writing for a theater whose repertory would include works by other composers, he adhered to, and helped evolve, a more standardized ensemble with strings at its core.

Monteverdi's final opera remained popular after his death. The libretto, by Giovanni Busenello, was based on an episode in Roman history. The Emperor Nero plots to depose his wife, Ottavia, in order to marry his mistress, the courtesan Poppea. His adviser, the philosopher Seneca, views this decision as an affront to the state and voices his objection. For this he is condemned to death. Once he is out of the way, Poppea triumphs and is crowned Empress of Rome.

In the final scene of the opera, Nero achieves his purpose and leads Poppea to the throne. When the consuls and tribunes arrive to salute Poppea, we hear a chorus for tenors and basses with much imitation between the two lines.

A sinfonia sets the scene for the final love duet between Nero and Poppea, which closes the opera. In the duet, the opening section returns after the middle part, which has been repeated; the result is a pattern of A-B-B-A that foreshadows the da capo, or A-B-A, aria, which was to dominate opera later on. The duet unfolds over a four-note ground bass that is carried by various instruments, such as lute, harp, and harpsichord. A ground bass refers to a short phrase repeated over and over in the lower voice while the upper voices pursue their independent course. With each repetition, some aspect of the melody, harmony, or rhythm is changed. The lovers' voices intermingle in a tender dialogue. The emotional phrase "pur t'annodo" (I enchain you) is highlighted by melismatic treatment. (In a melisma, you will recall, a single syllable of text is extended over a group of notes.) Notable is Monteverdi's affective use of dissonance on such phrases as "pili non peno" (no more grieving) and "pili non moro" (no more sorrow or dying). The lovers hope that their union will put an end to all contention.