One promise of listening to great music written by and for people long dead is that it can provide a glimpse into the heights of human achievement and accomplishment. Whether it is the cerebral craftsmanship of Bach or the heroism of Beethoven, such music gives us something to admire, appreciate, and perhaps even emulate. Often listening to such music stirs feelings of pride and, at its best—as with Beethoven’s clamorous explosion of joy in the Ninth Symphony—reaffirms the human spirit. If we can agree that war and politics are people at their worst, then surely the arts are humanity at its best.
But, of course, not all great music is by Beethoven. And moreover, not all great music has to mimic his themes of triumph and heroism. When we only listen for optimistic inspiration of great achievements, we can easily overlook works—great works—that confront us with darker truths. Claudio Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea is one such example. Famously, the opera has no heroes: The characters are not just flawed, but often downright despicable. While the history of opera is littered with tragedy—when bad things happen to good people—that is not the story of Poppea. This is a story of good things happening to bad people when they do bad things.
Drawn from the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, the plot of the opera follows the rise to power of Poppea as she becomes Empress of the Roman Empire. From the very title, you know how this opera will end: Poppea gets her crown. How she gets there, however, will make you grimace as the opera forces you to ask yourself serious questions about corrupt actors in positions of power without any real checks and balances.
Straight out of a soap opera, it starts with Poppea’s boyfriend, Otho, coming home to find her with another man. She has seduced the (married) Emperor Nero and gets him to leave his wife, Octavia. Just in case anyone was feeling sentimental about true love, Poppea’s servant openly scolds her for her ambition, obviously drawn to Nero’s status and position.
As the opera proceeds, anyone who stands in the way of Poppea and Nero’s “love” does not fare well. Rather than flatter Nero, his trusted adviser Seneca warns the Emperor against rash decision making and self-serving rulers. He is sentenced to death, but chooses to take his own life for the sake of pride. Taking a page from Poppea’s book, Otho, the boyfriend Poppea cheated on, convinces another woman through flattery to murder Poppea. The plot fails, but justice is also obstructed: Otho convinces the Emperor that it was his ex-wife, Octavia, who did the conspiring. She’s banished. For “confessing,” the real culprits are pardoned—so long as they leave the country together, never to come back. By the end, Poppea is Empress, Nero is pleased with himself, and the lives of everyone else are basically in ruins.
So what’s the appeal here? Well, first, Monteverdi’s music is beautiful. Committed to realistic depiction of both the sound of speech and the emotional truth of characters, he wrote music that portrays human psychology and draws the audience into the world of the characters. In fact, Monteverdi’s music is so compelling that the characters’ motives almost start to make sense. The music of the love duet between Nero and Poppea, “Pur ti miro,” not only sonically illustrates how Poppea leads Nero along and gets him to bend to her will, but the beauty of Monteverdi’s composition almost makes you want to cheer them on.
And perhaps that is what makes this opera great. Even though you should know better, even though you should know that this relationship is the cause of so much harm, Monteverdi’s commitment to realistic human emotions—what was called the stile rappresentativo at the time—can easily fool you into feeling sympathetic for these terrible people and their desires. By tugging on our heartstrings with beautiful, emotionally honest music, Monteverdi encourages us to suspend our better judgement and look past the corruption and wickedness.
The unique experience of being seduced by such sensuous and beautiful music might be part of the point of this cautionary tale. When you read this plot, it is easy to draw conclusions about what good governance looks like—and there are plenty conclusions on that topic to draw. Listening to the work, things become more complicated: Just as Poppea uses flattery and seduction to hide her ulterior motives, Monteverdi’s music uses emotional honesty and realism to soften and distract from the treachery. The experience of the opera mimics real life in that corruption and manipulation are not so easy to spot when presented in glossy beautiful packaging.
Although not an exploration of the triumph of humanity in the style of Beethoven, Monteverdi’s realistic depiction of corruption creates an opportunity to see how immoral people play to others’ passions and biases for their personal gain. It reminds us why it is important to maintain some skepticism of flattery and emotional manipulation, and some openness to those who tell us when we are wrong, all the while demonstrating—through the music’s power to stir our sympathies—just how hard a task that can be.