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Monteverdi, Claudio: L'incoronazione di Poppea
Act 1: "Disprezzata Regina" (Ottavia)
Aria Talk •
Editor's Note: Aria Talk focuses not on the tried-and-true pieces you undoubtedly already know, but on somewhat off-the-beaten-track arias. The hope is that this music will prove a refreshing musical and interpretive change not only for you, the performer, but also for those hearing you in auditions.
Monteverdi's portrait of the wronged Roman empress Ottavia can only be taken on by a genuine singing actress. Don't bother with Ottavia's monologue if pear-shaped tones are the be-all/end-all for you; yes, there are passages here where vocal velvet comes in handy, but the piece is much more about coloring the voice, and those colors on occasion must be harsh and raw in response to the emotional agony of the character. If you're equal to this piece, the effect you can have on your listeners will be devastating.
Ottavia, married to Nerone, knows that the courtesan Poppea is his mistress. The monologue (which, in fact, begins the role) reveals the utter misery Ottavia feels not only for herself, but for all women. She laments the slavery of marriage, and the fact that when women bear sons, they nourish the very creatures who will eventually dominate them and become their torturers. Ottavia now explodes with outrage over the behavior of Nerone himself, and the suffering he has caused her. Wondering where he is, she then answers her own question — he's in Poppea's arms! Finally Ottavia calls out to Jupiter, imploring him to come to her aid: "If you have no thunderbolts with which to punish Nerone, I declare you impotent, I accuse you of injustice." She then suddenly realizes what she is saying, and turns restrained: "I shall suppress and bury my complaints," she concludes, "in silent anguish."
This is your chance to be a tragedienne, with the drama emerging through recitar cantando — that heart-stoppingly expressive style of early-opera recitative of which Monteverdi was the greatest master. He makes things easier for you with the structure he gives the monologue: It's in four distinct sections, with built-in pauses that give you a chance to alter the mood. The important words highlighting each phrase will be perfectly clear to you, and you can adjust your vocal shading accordingly. You should reserve your full power for the cry to Jupiter, while also having in reserve the flexibility that will let you blaze through the quick descending scales on the word "fulmini" (thunderbolts).
Score: Universal Edition
Complete role on CD: Jennifer Larmore (Harmonia Mundi) or Cathy Berberian (Teldec)
Complete role on DVD: Ning Liang (Opus Arte) or Trudeliese Schmidt (Deutsche Grammophon)
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