In his last opera, premiered in 1643, Monteverdi dealt with a historical subject for the first time. The story of the scandalous marriage of Emperor Nero to Poppea was well known to audiences. However, Monteverdi and his librettist Francesco Busenello made no judgement: the music celebrates the two protagonists’ love with great sensuality, without concealing the trail of violence they leave in their wake. Added to this is a colourful array of comic figures from the Commedia dell’arte, evidently included to please the audience. Public opera houses for paying visitors existed in Venice from 1637. Monteverdi bestows all his skill on these episodic figures too. Director Claus Guth uses the great diversity within the work to cause different worlds to collide and to provide space for the ramifications of the plot to unfold, which also allow theatrical exaggerations. Against the background of a failing empire, the historical characters reveal a set of people in whom we can see ourselves: They are all driven by their passions.
Who controls the actions of humankind? This is the subject of a wager between Fortuna (Fate), Virtù (Virtue) and Amore (Love) in the prologue. Nerone, ruler of a great empire, is not interested in government. His attention is entirely taken up with the beautiful Poppaea whom he covets with a passion. Poppea, for her part, wants to be on the throne and shamelessly exploits her seductive powers. Those who lose out are Nero’s wife Ottavia and Poppaea’s former lover Ottone. Nerone rids himself of the philosopher Seneca, whose warnings irritate the emperor, by ordering him to commit suicide. Ottavia, however, wants revenge and incites Ottone to try to murder Poppea. Ottone also involves Drusilla, who is in love with him, in the plot. The god Amore himself prevents the murder and makes sure that he wins the wager: Nerone crowns Poppea his empress, and Rome applauds. Is Amore really victorious in the end?