Pur ti miro, pur ti godo

One of the most romantic and beautiful moments in all of opera is at the very end of Claudio Monteverdi‘s final opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea (Act III, Scene 7), the duet aria “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo.” Written just months before the composer’s death at age 76, the opera is the pinnacle of Monteverdi’s achievements, showing no diminution of his creative energies.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), composer - (De...

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), composer – (Detail from full painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I have been able to smugly claim to be one of the few people on the planet to have seen no less than three separate live productions of Poppea, but the work has enjoyed a veritable renaissance in recent years with many new productions, so I daresay my claim no longer holds true.

My first experience was around 1978 when the Asolo Opera company presented it in Sarasota, Florida, where I was in school as an undergraduate at New College. This was a life-changing experience for me on numerous levels. It was the first full opera I had ever seen (discounting the numerous “light” operas of Gilbert and Sullivan I saw as a child when my father conducted a local orchestra hired for the touring D’Oyly Carte company), which led me to subscribe to subsequent seasons while in Florida, and to become a lifelong lover of opera ever since. It was also a revelation to learn about baroque opera, as opposed to the romantic-era opera most people are at least aware of: that of Puccini, Bizet, Verdi, and Wagner.  I was studying early music at the time and had just begun lessons on the viola da gamba, so I was especially fond of learning about the baroque continuo. But above all it made me fall in love with the glorious music of Monteverdi.

(As a curious side note, the Sarasota production featured fairy-like dancers who were dressed  in body stockings with strategically placed foliage sewn on. They did a couple of very beautiful, but very sensual dances and it seems the local authorities came very close to shutting down the production because of them. Cooler heads prevailed, but it did boost ticket sales from the local news coverage.)

The second production I saw was around 2000 when the Lyric Opera Company of Arizona State University presented it with a small baroque chamber ensemble with harpsichord and theorbo sharing continuo duties. It was an intimate production in their recital hall with student singers, but fully staged with sets and costumes. I saw a Sunday matinee performance. As part of the university’s regular opera season, the audience included a significant portion of elderly ladies hoping for lovely afternoon’s entertainment. I could almost hear the collective gasp when the scene opened on a sort of harem boudoir and the gorgeous countertenor Nerone appeared with his flaming red hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and wearing what I can only describe as a “Speedo” and not much else. I thought they would have to call the medics when the godlike young man opened his mouth and a powerful soprano voice emerged. Monteverdi operas are not easy listening. There is a lot of recitative between the relatively sparse arias. Fully half of the matinee audience did not return after the first act, with further erosion after the second. Whether it was from shock or boredom it’s hard to tell. It was their loss. Some of the secondary roles were not strong singers, but the principals were solid and I knew full well what was coming at the end and that it would be worth the wait.

The last production I saw was in 2004 at the University of Kentucky. UK rarely takes risks with their opera productions. But occasionally Everett McCorvey will have a curious whim and his whims tend to become reality as his staff scurries to figure out how to make them happen. The results are not always great choices, but they are usually great performances. In this case UK Opera hired Atlanta early music impressario Predrag Gosta, artistic director of the New Trinity Baroque, to direct the production with members of his instrumental ensemble. They chose to stage it in what I recall was a sort of 1930s gangster set and costumes which I felt clashed badly with the baroque music and classical Roman theme. This was probably the weakest of the three productions I’ve seen. UK’s opera program is extremely good, but at the time they had no one on the faculty who specialized in early music performance. Early baroque opera is very different from more modern bel canto style, especially when it comes to ornamentation. The big voice with lots of vibrato that defines bel canto is totally inappropriate for earlier opera, where complex ornamentation was the norm. (Vibrato was considered an ornament to be used judiciously.)

Monteverdi-Poppea

Monteverdi-Poppea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last few days and weeks I’ve had reason to think about Monteverdi and his ilk. I am jealous of my colleagues back home in Kentucky who are currently working hard on their May concert of music featuring several arias from Poppea and other music of the time. This is not only among my favorite music to listen to. As a continuo gamba player it’s among the most fun to play, allowing me to work with the keyboard or lute and a singer or two in an intimate collaboration. Alas, as I am currently posted at the antipodes I am unable to participate in the concert and will not even be back home in time for the performance. I am hoping they make recordings.

Additionally, I was fortunate this past weekend to have participated in a few events relating to the Perth International Arts Festival. The famed early music director and musicologist William Christie was in town with his latest showcase of young vocal talent accompanied by a fine baroque orchestra. The theme for Saturday night’s concert was “In an Italian Garden” and featured some wonderful excerpts from operas by Stradella, Vivaldi, Handel, and others, but, alas, no Monteverdi. Nonetheless, these outstanding young singers were beautifully trained in the baroque idioms and it served to further my thinking about Monteverdi’s final aria. The concert was preceded on Friday by an all-day seminar about “The Passionate Arts in the Early Modern World,” focusing on the 17th-18th century courts of the Medicis and Louis XIV. The workshop was sponsored by the UWA School of Music and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (yeah, there really is such a thing).

L’incoronazione di Poppea

The setting and story of Poppea is more or less historical fact and is not a happy tale. It is the story of the decadent emperor Nerone (Nero) who is married to the empress Octavia (Ottavia), but falls in love with Poppea. In a nutshell, Nero’s advisor, the learned philosopher Seneca, admonished Nero against pursuing Poppea, which advise Nero repays by ordering Seneca to commit suicide. There are others who get caught up in the web of deceit and betrayal and jealousy, and considering the circumstances it’s rather surprising that more blood does not flow. But in the end Nero would have his way, exiling Octavia and others so that he may live in wedded bliss with his beloved Poppea.

Pur ti miro, pur ti godo

The roles of Nerone and Poppea are both sopranos — equal voices — but Nerone is normally sung by a countertenor (historically a castrato), but sometimes performed these days by a female soprano or mezzo or even by a male tenor. But once you’ve heard it performed by a good countertenor it’s hard to listen to any other way.

As Ottavia is set adrift at sea, there is a coronation ceremony proclaiming Poppea the new empress. After the celebratory pomp things suddenly become calm. Everything is resolved. Love has conquered all and there is nothing left but for the couple to languish in their lust and adoration. The aria begins with an ostinato in the continuo — four notes descending from the tonic.  The words are a simple expression of love and adoration sung by the voices alternating and overlapping sometimes with almost painfully exquisite dissonances at the second or even minor second.

Poppea: Pur ti miro,
Nero: pur ti stringo
P: pur ti godo,
N: pur t’annodo
P: più non peno,
N: più non moro,
P: O mia vita,
P/N: o mio tesoro.

Poppea: I gaze at you
Nero: I delight in you
P: I tighten closer to you
N: I am bound to you
P: I no longer suffer
N: I no longer die
P/N: Oh my life
Oh my treasure.

Then a lighter section breaks from the ostinato with declarations of love:

P: Io son tua…
N: Tuo son io…
P: Speme mia,
N: dillo, dì,
P: Tu sei pur,
N: speme mia
P: L’idol mio,
N: dillo, dì,
P: Tu sei pur,
N/P: Sì, mio ben,
Sì, mio cor, mia vita, sì, sì, sì, sì.

P: I am yours
N: You are mine
P: My hope,
N: say it, say,
P: The idol of mine,
N: Yes, my love,
P/N: Yes, my heart,
my life, yes.
And then the first part with the ostinato is repeated.

This is truly among the most intimate, even erotic, moments in all of opera. When they start repeating “Yes, my love, yes, my heart, yes, my life, yes, yes, yes…” it’s nearly orgasmic and almost uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch.

Performances

The aria is intrinsically sensuous. There are many recorded performances and all are good on some level, but most are somewhat lacking in some detail. If you are not familiar with the piece, I suggest you start with this:

Some performances seem odd when the singers are physically distant from each other or otherwise do not appear to be really engaged.

Others are more overt about the implied sexuality:

And yet others are totally over-the-top passionate. This is a full production video. The aria begins near the end at 3:00:10. I’m not a fan of the modernist vocal styling, but this is the kind of passion this piece deserves.

And finally I wanted to share this version just so you can hear the remarkable countertenor Philippe Jaroussky

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