All that matters at this moment is what we hear and feel, as Monteverdi’s glorious music defies all of our attempts at analysis and interpretation—it simply needs to be sung and heard.
“Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo…I gaze upon you, I enjoy you.”
I am sitting in Richardson Auditorium listening to one of opera’s most glorious moments: the love duet between the Emperor Nero and his mistress Poppea Sabina that concludes Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea). It is also highly controversial. As we discussed at length in my musicology graduate seminar, scholars have long wondered whether the 75-year-old composer even wrote the duet, attributing it to one or another of Monteverdi’s younger colleagues who were composing for the Venetian stage. Commentators have also been troubled by the moral ambiguity of the opera in general and this duet in particular. This sublime music is nothing less than a celebration of the triumph of carnal love over morality and justice, as Nero banishes (and murders) his wife, crowning Poppea amid the corruption of Imperial Rome.
Nevertheless, as I hear the voices of our students Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen ’15 and Katie Buzard ’14 intertwine so seductively, imitating one another, and uniting for the most exquisitely painful dissonances, any scholarly debate seems to fade into the distance. All that matters at this moment is what we hear and feel, as Monteverdi’s glorious music defies all of our attempts at analysis and interpretation—it simply needs to be sung and heard.
During the fall semester of 2013 I had the unmatched pleasure of witnessing our students encounter and take mastery over this remarkable opera. Blissfully unafraid, they gained control over the difficult and unfamiliar styles of playing and singing mid-17th-century Italian music, confronting in thoughtful and creative ways the ethical and moral ambivalence at the core of this work. They not only rose to the challenge, but conquered it, and by the end of the semester I found myself enchanted by this group of students who performed Poppea with such unwavering commitment, and whose passion for Monteverdi had come to equal my own. In idyllic fashion, the boundaries between scholarship and performance all but disappeared.
Our singers craved knowledge about the opera, the characters, and their motivations even while focusing on the craft of performance; my graduate students and I, immersed in the scholarly materials, had the privilege of seeing the work come to life in their voice and bodies, and before our eyes and ears. This is what we do through the arts at Princeton: we can take ideas and make them sing.