Opera North Blog

To Move the Soul: Performing Poppea

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Musical Director Laurence Cummings examines the authership behind Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea and asks the question: does it really matter who it is by when the music moves your soul?

The Coronation of Poppea raises many questions for the Musical Director. Firstly there is the issue of authorship. We are in no doubt that the libretto is by Francesco Busenello but when it comes to the music it seems that there were several composers working alongside Monteverdi. We will probably never know the reason for this. It may have been that Monteverdi had reached an age where he didn’t feel able to complete a full-length opera without assistance; he may have enjoyed the idea of a ‘school of Monteverdi’ production as did so many painters when working on large canvases. What is certain is the undeniably great quality of the music of Poppea and its close marriage with the drama of this extraordinary historical story.

In opera at this time the singer reigned supreme and indeed, as in the case of Poppea, the composer’s name often did not appear on the programme listing. If a particular artist did not like an aria or felt they needed more of the focus their demands were usually met. This resulted in many different versions of operas as casts changed from season to season. Often arias and passages of recitative were added in or transposed to suit the needs of the available singers.

We have two surviving versions of the score of Poppea, one from Venice (where the opera was first performed) and the other from Naples. Neither dates from the original performance in Venice in 1643. The manuscripts share a similar musical text, though with variant passages in places and the usual scribal errors.

In some ways this lack of an autograph score is frustrating, but in others I find it very liberating. As practitioners of historical performance we spend our time recreating as best we can the practices of a former age in order to do what every treatise from the 17th and 18th centuries requires of us: to move the soul of the listener. This involves much more than just getting details ‘right’. Though we endeavour to use the right instrumental equipment and carefully study the source material which shows us how to play and ornament the music, this alone is not enough to engage the listener. We need to find the right rhetorical language, and this starts with creating a convincing text.

It is very clear that the variations between the Venice and Naples manuscripts are due to different performance requirements for specific occasions. The extension of this is that, rather like a modern musical, we may feel justified in modifying the performing material to suit our own circumstances. Early on Tim Albery and I decided that our production should be sung in English translation so that you the audience can experience the text directly. Unlike later Baroque opera, very little text in Poppea is repeated, so the neck movements required to read the text from surtitles would be exhausting and possibly injurious! Poppea is as quick-fire as any Shakespeare play.

In terms of the music, we have been faithful to the original but, inevitably, we had to choose which parts of the two manuscripts to include. We have made cuts and added in a few sinfonias in the spirit of theatre stagecraft. If a singer has to leave the stage it is often more dramatic if there is music to accompany his or her exit.

A further set of choices concerns the orchestra. There is no indication in the surviving scores of the instrumental means required. For our production we have assembled a splendid continuo section with two chitarrones, a harp, a lirone (a bowed instrument with a flat finger board that can produce spine-tingling chords, pictured above), a viola da gamba and two harpsichords. These players improvise chords above the given bass line. Most of the opera consists of just two lines: the singer’s vocal line and this bass line. In addition, we have two violins who play the dramatic sinfonias and only occasionally accompany the singers.

How much of The Coronation of Poppea is by Monteverdi we will probably never know, but does it really matter? The music is so vibrant that we hope it leaps off the page and straight into your heart and that the choices we have made move your soul in many different ways.

The Coronation of Poppea is on throughout October and November at the Leeds Grand Theatre, The Lowry, Newcastle Theatre Royal and Nottingham Royal Centre. To book and for further information click here.

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