When the Powerful Win: Poppea in the era of Trump
Sunday October 15 saw the completion of Monteverdi 450, a remarkable 4-day residency at Chicago’s Harris Theater by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists. Maestro Gardner and crew performed all three surviving operas by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in honor of the composer’s 450th birthday: Orfeo (1607), Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643). While Monteverdi 450 has already toured Europe extensively, these performances at Chicago’s Harris Theatre marked its US premiere.
The performance was absolutely stunning on all fronts. As can be expected from Gardner’s reputation and recordings, the period ensemble and singers were impeccable. The crispness of energy, the flow of the rhythm–all was perfectly calibrated, with nothing wasted, no opportunity for expression lost. Every musical decision was devoted to the drive of the music. The lead singers–Hana Blazikovà (Poppea), Kangmin Justin Kim (Nerone), Marianna Pizzolato (Ottavia), Gianluca Buratto (Seneca), and Carlo Vistoli (Ottone)–brought an unmistakable passion and determination to their roles. The depictions were lifelike (and that’s what made them terrifying).
I’ll leave it to full-length reviews to provide further detail. What struck me most about Sunday’s Poppea, however, is what always strikes me about Poppea: it’s a confounding work. It’s an opera where the bad guys win. It celebrates the love and ambition of murderers and adulterers. In fact, it’s an opera in which no one is innocent; there’s no real “hero” to root for.
Who was Poppea?
So let’s back this up. Who was Poppea in real life? Poppaea Sabina (AD 30-65), born in Pompeii, was a noblewoman who became the second wife of Roman emperor Nero (Nerone) in AD 62. Poppaea had been married to Otho (Ottone), who would later become emperor himself; in Monteverdi’s opera, however, Poppea is never married to Ottone; Ottone is merely in love with Poppea. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Poppaea was beautiful and ruthlessly ambitious. She convinced Nero to divorce his first wife, the empress Claudia Octavia (Ottavia); Tacitus claims that Poppaea had also convinced Nero to kill his own mother Agrippina, as Agrippina disapproved of Poppaea (although this version of history has been disputed). Poppaea died in AD 65, but it is not known exactly when or how; some think that she died from complications during the pregnancy of their second child, but contemporaneous historians tend to blame Nero for fatally injuring Poppaea in an outburst of rage.
The opera Poppea is not too far off the historical mark. The libretto, by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, draws heavily from Tacitus and another Roman historian, Suetonius. When the opera begins, Nerone is still married to empress Ottavia, but his affair with Poppea is already in full swing. It’s a poorly kept secret. Poppea has clear ambitions for the throne. Nerone wants to divorce Ottavia, but Nerone’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, argues against him, saying that such a divorce would be unwise and damaging to the empire. At Poppea’s urging, Nerone orders Seneca’s death by suicide, which Seneca stoically accepts.
Ottavia, on the other hand, takes drastic measures. She teams up with Ottone, the nobleman who deeply loved Poppea but was ultimately spurned by her. Ottone drags in Drusilla, who loves Ottone; together they hatch a plot to murder Poppea. When their attempt goes awry, Nerone exiles Ottone, Drusilla, and Ottavia, removing the final obstacles in his way. That very same day, Nerone marries Poppea and makes her empress. Consuls, tribunes, and a chorus of cupids pay homage. The allegorical character Amore and his mother, Venere (Venus), look on approvingly. The ecstatic couple sings “Pur ti miro,” one of the iconic love duets in all of opera (although this particular duet was probably not composed by Monteverdi). And that’s it: the opera is over. In the Monteverdi 450 performance, the lights dimmed during “Pur ti miro” until only a single spotlight shone on Nerone and Poppea, as they chanted their final few lines in each other’s arms.
And the redeeming value of this is….?
So, recapping: we have a monumental 3.5-hour-long opera, an early masterpiece of the genre, adorning the successful union of two murderers with some of the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard. What’s the point?
If you’re thinking about cheering for the victims, we still run into problems. Nobody’s innocent here. The spurned lovers Ottone and Ottavia conspire to attempt murder. Drusilla acts naive but is all too happy to join in. The stoic philosopher Seneca seems like the noble hero we’ve been waiting for, but not so fast: all throughout the first act, the other characters despise him, routinely calling him a hypocrite, a back-stabber, a political ladder-climber, and a pedant who is incapable of understanding true human suffering. Even the minor characters have obvious flaws: Poppea’s nurse Arnalta, who initially warns Poppea against her unchecked ambitions for the throne, welcomes Poppea’s coronation in the end, reveling in her newfound status.
Maybe love is the victor? The opera’s prologue presents three allegorical figures: Amore (Love), Fortuna (Destiny), and Virtua (Virtue). These three characters quarrel over which one is truly the most powerful. In the end, Amore brings the other two to their knees: “Today I will win a duel against you!” And with that, the first act commences. Amore later intervenes, ruining Ottone’s murder attempt, and in the end (at least in the Gardner production) Amore casts an approving and watchful eye over the final love duet between Nerone and Poppea. It seems that Amore is everywhere and cannot be thwarted. Is Poppea therefore a statement on the power of love? That love triumphs over all–even fortune and virtue? This is obviously problematic, as Tim Carter’s excellent program notes attest: “if L’incoronazione presents the triumph of love, our moral problems return: how can we possibly condone what Nerone and Poppea do to each other in bed and out?”
And yet there’s another possible explanation. Poppea might be an indirect tome of praise for the Venetian republic, by way of insulting classical Rome as corrupt and degenerate. Venice was home to the first public opera house in the world, which opened its doors in 1637. Until this point, opera had exclusively been a private affair, funded and staged by elite ruling families in Italian city-states. It was for this new public sphere that Monteverdi completed Ulisse and Poppea in Venice, where he had lived since 1613. “Venice was a republic and fiercely proud of its detachment from the north Italian courts on the one hand, and from Rome and the Church on the other,” Carter comments, “It vaunted itself as the last, great heir to the Greek and Roman republics of antiquity.” By heaping shame on Rome, Monteverdi was perhaps catering to Venetian opera-goers with a healthy dose of civic pride.
And educated citizens of Venice at the time would surely have known the real ending of the story: that Poppea perished a few years after her coronation, with Nero’s death (in AD 68) trailing only a few short years after that. The Venetians may have taken pleasure in picturing the rapid decline of Nero’s Rome, brought on by the emperor’s notoriously violent and extravagant rule. Despite the events of Monteverdi’s opera, Nero was still an utter disgrace: a byword of history, to be ridiculed even centuries after his death. Even the most powerful rulers come and go; nothing is permanent, everything is transient.
Still… what’s the point?
But, if you don’t know Roman history, and if you’re not a proud citizen of the republic of Venice, what’s the point of Poppea? I for one believe that there are timeless and universal messages embedded in Monteverdi’s final work. Primarily, messages of power versus powerlessness. What to do when the powerful win?
By his portrayal of Nerone, Monteverdi causes us to consider the actions and habits of all powerful politicians who have followed Nero’s path: those who come from inherited wealth and status. Those who are brash, unhinged, extravagant, and not fully equipped to deal with the matters of state. Those who place personal feuds over policy work. Who censor critics. Who ignore the educated, reasoned voices around them. Throughout Poppea, Monteverdi examines the damaging effects of such leadership, along with a sobering secondary point: people who attempt to counteract such leadership have few options, some of which are utterly disastrous.
Nerone and Trump?
While there have been many such “Neronian” politicians in history, one can’t escape the potential parallelisms between Donald J. Trump and Monteverdi’s Nerone. Nerone employs military guards for his secret trysts with Poppea (the exhausted guards complain of having neither a “solitary hour nor a solitary day”). Trump and his family require costly Secret Service protection, and Trump (together with his cabinet) frequently uses public money for pleasure, such as weekend golfing trips or vacations. Nerone is furthermore uninterested and unaware of the affairs of the empire; as one guard reports, “Armenia rebels and he does not care; Pannonia is up in arms, but Nerone does nothing.” Nor has Trump demonstrated any sort of command or skill in international affairs (North Korea, Iran nuclear deal, Paris accord, etc.). Nerone is a dynastic ruler who thinks only of Poppea’s approval and adulation. Similarly, Trump inherited his wealth from his father, yet can think only of approval ratings, crowd size, and TV ratings. Nerone displays the opposite of chastity in his pursuit of Poppea; and in Trump’s case, we have the infamous Access Hollywood tape of Trump confessing to sexual assault.
Nerone is rather obsessed with a personal feud (disposing of Ottavia); cue Trump and his Twitter flame-wars with journalists, TV shows, media companies, sportscasters, talk-show hosts, and so on. Nerone, frustrated with Seneca’s opposition to his plans, fumes, “I will cut the tongues of those who criticize me.” Trump has called for the censorship and removal of critical journalists from White House briefings; his critics are panned as “fake news.” (And professional athletes who protest during the national anthem should be “fired.”) Nerone silences the educated voice of Seneca. Trump ignores climate science in his unabashed support for the coal industry and in his controversial selection for EPA Chief. When Poppea is confronted by Ottone, she spouts, “Those who are born unhappy should blame themselves, not others.” This reminded me of Trump’s continued efforts to eliminate ACA (“Obamacare”) protections for individuals with pre-existing health conditions. And finally, Nerone’s exasperated line “I care neither for the people nor the Senate!” might ring true for the Dreamers, transgender members of the US military, and many other Americans who have already lost protections, rights, and government benefits under the Trump administration.
Whether or not these parallelisms seem convincing or relevant, and regardless of one’s feelings on the 45th President of the United States, the Monteverdian theme of the powerful versus the powerless applies to a wide number of contemporary situations. The question remains, what can be done when the powerful win?
Don’t do as the Romans do
When Ottavia learns of Nerone’s infidelity and affair with Poppea, she considers three courses of action. First, Ottavia’s nurse suggests that Ottavia should embarrass Nerone by taking a new lover herself. The nurse calls for revenge of the petty type. Second, Seneca exhorts Ottavia to endure her sorrow patiently, as this would “add to her dignity.” Finally, Ottavia pleads with Seneca to take official action by mentioning Nerone’s indiscretions to the Roman Senate.
While her options are admittedly limited, Ottavia would have done best to at least try a combination of these methods in earnest. She still has access to Nerone and might get through to him via personal communication. She still possesses her sovereignty as empress and can employ the official channels that go along with that position. Or she could have kept quiet, biding her time; perhaps, after Poppea’s coronation, the political tide would have turned against the treacherous Nerone, with the Senate coming to support Ottavia’s cause.
Ottavia’s fatal mistake is instead choosing option #4: attempting to kill Poppea, and implicating the flimsy Ottone (and by extension his lover Drusilla) in the scheme. Ottavia is impatient and wants Poppea gone now. She even threatens Ottone, saying that she will claim that Ottone assaulted her, if Ottone does not commit the murder of Poppea immediately. This is a destructive and unwise use of her great power. By taking this course of action, Ottavia stoops to Nerone’s level and becomes the exact thing she is fighting against: an impetuous ruler who achieves her wishes through violence and forceful manipulation.
In fact, Ottavia’s grave misstep plays precisely into Nerone’s hand. Until then, Nerone’s hands are tied. But when he learns that Ottavia is behind the murder plot, he and Poppea are thrilled. His rage at the murder attempt instantly turns to excitement. As Poppea points out, Nerone suddenly has “just cause” to banish Ottavia forever. While Ottavia was initially the victim, she makes the first great public mistake, and instead becomes a transgressor.
By examining Ottavia’s decisions, we arrive at one of Poppea‘s enduring questions: what to do when faced with injustice inflicted by someone in a position of power? The seemingly correct answer points to a very grassroots approach, one that might have resonated with Monteverdi’s original Venetian audience: employ all of the legal channels available to you, both personal and official. Wait until a lawful coalition gathers around you and your cause. Though Ottavia’s situation may have ultimately been hopeless anyway, it is still a useful exercise for us as observers to think through what could have been. In this sense, Poppea becomes a cautionary tale for individuals under great pressure: stay calm, be patient, and resist drastic measures.
Monteverdi’s Poppea is a case of “don’t do as the Romans do.” The opera condemns the rash, binary decision-making of its main characters. There is very little critical thinking or problem-solving in Poppea. There are indeed voices of reason in the opera, but those voices are summarily pushed to the sidelines. The solution here is always one thing: “destroy.”
In the current age of Trump, when bluster, rash judgments, and bitter personal battles often carry the day, we must therefore follow the opposite course. We must identify the voices of reason, wherever they may be found across the political spectrum, and bring them to the forefront of our thinking and decision-making.
copyright 2017 Teddy Niedermaier
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