December 15, 2014, by Esther Eidinow

Drama or History?

Victoria Moore, a part-time student on the MA in The Visual Culture of Classical Antiquity, reflects on her experience of The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi, performed by Opera North at the Royal Theatre, Nottingham.

I have to say that I am not familiar with any of Monteverdi’s operas, so my main expectation was of the storyline, rather than the music or the singing.   I presumed that Nero would kill Octavia so he could marry Poppea, based on my recollection of the Roman play Octavia and Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

The opera was set in the modern period, rather than in ancient Rome. The staging included ten musicians on stage; the music itself was mainly based around the harpsichord. Some of the male singers surprised me with their soprano singing, which did not seem stretched or in falsetto. The set resembled an empty swimming pool (perhaps a play on the idea of Roman baths). The opening scene had a long narrow table running from the front to the back of the stage, which all the main characters sat around.

The first three characters to sing appeared to be observers, who at times sat in red chairs in the orchestra pit (a bit like X-Factor judges), and at other times at the back of the stage above the set. One of these characters was later revealed to be Cupid (presumably the other two were also gods; I’d speculate that one was Venus, but not sure about the other). Both Cupid and Venus would seem appropriate as the plot involved numerous love triangles. There was one between Ottone, Poppea and Nerone; another between Poppea, Ottone and Drusilla; and possibly a further between Nerone, Octavia and Octavia’s male servant.

One of the things that most intrigued me was the character of Nerone, who was more of a romantic lead.  This made me reflect on the way Nero, along with other ‘bad emperors’ are often caricatured and exaggerated in film and television, which in turn led me to consider the credibility of ancient sources. In the end I decided that The Coronation of Poppea needed to be judged as drama rather than history. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I very much enjoyed the twists and turns of who was going to murder who. The dramatic tension was maintained throughout, and despite my expectations of what was going to happen, at one point I thought even Nerone could get murdered (would have been a great twist nobody would have seen that coming). Overall, it was a very enjoyable evening.

The Coronation of Poppea is on throughout October and November at the Leeds Grand Theatre, The Lowry, Newcastle Theatre Royal and Nottingham Royal Centre.



Woodcut illustration (leaf [o]5v, f. cxxv) of Poppaea Sabina and Nero, hand-colored in red, green, yellow and blue, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474 (cf. ISTC ib00720000).

By kladcat (Woodcut illustration of Poppaea Sabina and Nero) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Classical receptionClassicsClassics and popular cultureEmperorsNeroOperaRoman historyUncategorized