(L'incoronazione di Poppea—Monteverdi) by Sylvia McNair
Poppea is not what we'd call ‘a nice girl’. She is Ambition Gone Wrong. Her ambition to become Nero's [Nerone's] wife and Empress of Rome burns out of control and she uses her extremely potent sexual powers to manipulate Nero into doing everything she wants. To ascend to the throne she must make sure anyone who might resist her is removed.
Her husband, Ottone, the General of Nero's army, is the first to be thrown aside. Next is Seneca, Nero's Secretary‐of‐State and life‐long counsellor. At Poppea's urging, Nero fires him. When told he has been relieved of his duties, Seneca does the only thing he knows to be honourable: he takes his own life. Last, but hardly least, is Nero's wife, Ottavia. Nero puts her out to sea in a boat with no sail: it is a death sentence. With all the ‘obstacles’ removed, Poppea becomes Nero's wife and ascends to the throne—she has achieved her ambition.
It would be hard in this modern age to find anyone who is perfectly type‐cast to play the role of somebody as wicked as Poppea. Ironically, the music that Claudio Monteverdi created for Nero and Poppea to sing is some of the most exquisitely beautiful in all of opera. I dare say the music of L'incoronazione di Poppea has almost made this story about two deeply disturbed people and what they did in order to get what they wanted, into something noble.
Poppea is the antithesis of every role I've ever played. I usually play the young, desirable goodie‐goodies, sweet and pure and smart—parts I like to think I'm most suited for! But Poppea, one of the most wicked of all female operatic characters, is a real acting challenge. Maybe that's why I like it so much—I can let my imagination as an actress run wild because nothing seems too outrageous when interpreting this horror. And playing a sex goddess on stage is actually great fun.
If one looks carefully at the text for the love duets Nero and Poppea sing, one can easily imagine the staging of a private orgy. Poppea speaks specifically about the softness and sweetness of her breasts, and the music, even without the words, describes graphically their pleasures in bed—Poppea knows what Nero likes. But a wise stage producer knows that less is more, that people who are fully clothed are much sexier, much more attractive and potent than people who are not, and he or she will accomplish far more real sensuality by avoiding the staging of an orgy.
One of the highlights of my professional life was working on this opera with that most amazing musician, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, for the Salzburg Festival of 1993. His knowledge and his skill in this repertoire are unequalled and the inspiration he provides is as rich and colourful as any singing actress could ever hope for. I loved every minute of it.