When In Rome

The first time I saw The Coronation of Poppea, I was a college student on a school trip to Paris in the late 1970s. While I was an opera fan by that point, the experience was largely a triumph of timing and dumb luck. Gwyneth Jones was Poppea; Jon Vickers was Nero; Christa Ludwig was Ottavia, and Julius Rudel conducted. In my box at the Palais Garnier, I marveled at the colorful yet somehow incongruous Chagall paintings on the ceiling of the magnificent hall and my good fortune to be there that night.

My strongest memory of that first performance was the magnetism between Nero and Poppea—and the star power of the cast. Time truly seemed to stand still during the final duet, “Pur ti miro,” as the Emperor and his new Empress stepped toward each other, oblivious to everything else. I also remember the expression on Jones’s face earlier in the opera, during the scene between Poppea and her nurse, Arnalta, when Poppea is asked whether or not she fears getting so involved with Nero. “No, no, non temo,” (“No, no, I fear nothing”), Jones sang, boldly staring down the audience, her beautiful face a mask of brazen ambition, avarice, and total confidence.

In contrast, my most recent live Poppea, in the summer of 2008, took place at Le Poisson Rouge, a self-described “music venue and multimedia art cabaret” in New York’s Greenwich Village. The atmosphere was shadowy, clubby and intimate; the audience enjoyed food and drink while seated at small tables during the performance. The production was sung in English, and the singers were accompanied by a small orchestra of period instruments. Nero was portrayed by a mezzo-soprano; the Poppea was sinuous rather than brazen. The performers were costumed in a mixture of modern and classical dress, while a few pieces of furniture made up the minimal set. Nevertheless, I was as delighted and moved by the work in 2008 as I was nearly 30 years earlier.

Claudette Colbert as Poppea in Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 film  The Sign of the Cross . Image © Getty Images/Bettmann Archive.

Claudette Colbert as Poppea in Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 film The Sign of the Cross. Image © Getty Images/Bettmann Archive.

Of course, much has changed since those days. We may never again hear a performance where Wagnerian-sized voices would be considered in the principal roles, for example. Yet it never fails to fill me with a sense of awe and admiration that a work composed in 1642—among the earliest days of opera—remains as compelling as the best that the art form has produced subsequently. I also genuinely love this opera, with its characters that are so full of humor, passion, and human frailty, not to mention its timeless themes.

Consider the crucial dialogue between Nero and Seneca, the emperor’s teacher, when Seneca advises Nero against banishing his wife Ottavia in favor of Poppea. “Emotion is a wicked counselor,” Seneca warns, “that despises laws and scorns reason.” However, besotted Nero counters, “Reason is a strict mentor for him who obeys—NOT for him who commands.”

In the end, the doomed Seneca, defied and reviled by the departing emperor, can only comment, to the audience—and across the ages—“The worst side always prevails, when force contends with reason.” Plus ça change, indeed.

- Suzanne Martinucci

Suzanne Martinucci is a New York-based writer and lecturer on opera. She is a regular panelist on the Metropolitan Opera Quiz during the Toll Brothers Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts.