Among the landmarks of early opera, this was the first one based on historical incidents. The story of Nero and Poppea was well known to seventeenth century audiences, and they would probably have been familiar with Tacitus' account of the facts, with the tragedies of Seneca, and with the story of his life. Thus this masterwork of Monteverdi's old age was also quite accessible to Venetians of the day.
L'Incoronazione di Poppea was Monteverdi's largest and grandest work, premiered in Venice at the Saints Giovanni e Paolo Theater. There are a large number of closed forms -- arias and instrumental pieces -- that break up the flow of recitative. The composer uses instrumental ritornelli and musical motives to bind together diverse forms into larger cohesive units.
The characters in the plot are also diverse. There is a comic couple, there is the scheming Ottavia who is angered at her rejection by Nero, and there is Seneca, a noble philosopher who must die for his beliefs. There is the lovelorn Otho, weak and rejected by Poppea. And finally there are Nero and Poppea, the anti-hero and heroine. Both the librettist Busenello and Monteverdi skillfully describe each character's psychology in music and verse. The flirtations of the comic pair are contrasted with the passion of Nero and Poppea. And the sad resignation of Otho makes a vivid counterpart for the jealous vengefulness of Ottavia.
Monteverdi casts each role in a particular vocal range. Usually the male lead would have been played by a castrato, making Nero and Poppea both sopranos. Ottavia, by contrast, is a mezzo-soprano, and the nurse, a protector of Poppea, is a dark contralto. The part of Seneca is intended for a noble bass voice. And the instrumentation shifts. Nero is accompanied by the harpsichord or the regal, and Poppea by the lighter lute. Seneca's weighty voice sings to the accompaniment of the organ, and the assembled divinities to the heavenly harp.
The final scene is a beautiful illustration of the power of contrasts. Nero and Poppea are rejoicing at their coming nuptials in a passionate duet; their two soprano voices set off the lower one of Ottavia as she sings an extended lament upon leaving Rome. The weight of the music, its somber sadness, and its dramatic, tragic recitative style contrast starkly with the lovers' rejoicing. The coronation ceremony is introduced with full orchestral fanfare and a ceremonial chorus. The opera closes with another duet for Poppea and Nero, this one extremely passionate, an expression of love fulfilled.
The source for the libretto was Tacitus, a Roman historian. Both Tacitus and Suetonius told the story of the life of Nero, and both were at alive at a time when they could have gotten firsthand accounts from those who had witnessed the events of Nero's reign. Busenello did not include in his libretto the atrocities committed by Nero, nor his cold-blooded execution of his mother because of her objection to his love for Poppea. Poppea's motives for wanting to ascend the empress's throne are never impugned. Instead, the theme of the story is of love conquering all, even if the basis of that love is immoral. The nobility of Seneca is a potentially disturbing setback to this theme but is easily dismissed, and Nero and Poppea's love is the only and highest good that remains.