Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ inspires CU production of a Baroque masterpiece

Poppea wants to be empress, and the emperor wants Poppea.

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Glen Asakawa/University of Colorado

Nero and Poppea were the amoral power couple of 60s A.D. imperial Rome, and they didn’t care who got in their way. They are the subjects of Claudio Monteverdi’s final operatic masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppea, based on Roman history and written in 1653 for the carnival season in Venice.

The University of Colorado Boulder Eklund Opera Program production of The Coronation of Poppea will be presented Thursday through Sunday, April 23 to 26, in the Music Theater of the Imig Music Building. Leigh Holman will direct, and the music director will be Nicholas Carthy.

The similarity between Nero and Poppea and the characters on a certain popular television series gave Holman an idea how to make the opera more vivid.

“Coronation of Poppea is all about sex and politics and power, and if you’ve seen House of Cards, it’s the exact same thing,” she says. “It’s about a powerhungry, vicious man and his powerhungry, vicious girlfriend.”

The inspiration takes several forms. For one, the opera production is set in Washington, D.C., in a fictitious future close in time to House of Cards. Costumes and settings recall the TV series. Scenic elements, including Georgetown architecture and the iconic Netflix advertising image of the Lincoln Memorial, are incorporated into the production.

On the other hand, Holman respects the dramatic integrity of the opera.

“The Netflix series inspired this production, but it’s not the House of Cards,” she says.

For one thing, Nero has already ascended to power when the opera opens. Nero and Poppea are married to others, but Poppea is determined to become empress, and Nero is infatuated with the beautiful and ruthless Poppea. How they dispose of the obstacles to their desires forms the plot of the opera.

“There is a lot of violence,” Holman says. “We have plenty of killings, we have a suicide, and there is a lot of [implied] sex. I would not recommend that children come to see it unless their parents see that it’s OK for them.”

The ending is one of the most beautiful and breathtakingly ambivalent scenes in opera. After all rivals have been killed or exiled, Nero and Poppea are married with great rejoicing. Having triumphed through brutality and treachery, they sing a rapturous love duet. And here you have two of the most detestable characters in opera, singing utterly beautiful music.

As uncomfortable as that ending might be today, in Monteverdi’s time the impact may have been even greater and more ironic. Venetian audiences of 1653 probably knew Roman history, and they would have known that the marriage lasted only three years. In a fit of rage, Nero kicked Poppea to death in 65 A.D.

The disquieting ending is only one of the things that makes The Coronation of Poppea unusual. Another is the fact that the original copies have been lost and the opera has to be reconstructed from incomplete and conflicting later versions.

Long passages of the opera only exist as a voice part with a bass line. Among the various sources, the number and order of scenes varies considerably. It is not even certain how much and what parts of the opera were composed by Monteverdi. Over the past 50 years there have been many versions, some for lush orchestras of modern instruments, others using only instruments and performance techniques that would have been available in 1653.

“The reconstruction of such a score amounts to more of an act of composition than anything else,” is the way Carthy puts it. Lacking specialized resources, he is preparing a version for CU that will be scored simply for a string quintet with harpsichord. And “it matters not at all” how much of the music is actually Monteverdi’s.

“We perform the opera we have,” he says.

One complication is casting the role of Nero, which was written for a castrato — a voice type happily not available in 2015. With two casts, CU will use both possible solutions: a male tenor, singing the role down an octave, and a mezzo-soprano singing the role at written pitch.

After the musical problems have been solved, The Coronation of Poppea is a beautiful piece of music that presents one of the basic dilemmas of human existence. Tolstoy once remarked on “the illusion that beauty is goodness,” and that is the illusion that stands at the heart of the opera. We are startled to see so much beauty lavished on such evil characters. And rather than tie it up neatly at the end, Monteverdi leaves the question open.

“There’s a lot of beauty, but there’s a lot of evil up there,” Holman says. “They marry and there’s a big celebration, and then what happens? It leaves it to us.”

ON THE BILL: The Coronation of Poppea by Claudia Monteverdi, CU Eklund Opera Program, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday to Saturday, April 23 to 25 and 2 p.m., Sunday, April 26. Music Theater, Imig Music Building, 18th St., Boulder, 303-492-8008, www.cupresents.org.