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Passion Vs. Propriety: Monteverdi's 'Poppea'

Remember Dangerous Liaisons? The edgy, 1988 Oscar-winner from director Stephen Frears? It's hard to imagine a movie — or a novel, or a play or an opera, for that matter — with a more appropriate title. The film is filled with liaisons, and they're all dangerous on any number of levels.

The same title might also have been given to Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 opera, The Coronation of Poppea, another story of troublesome, and even life-threatening relationships.

But there's one, intriguing difference between the 20th-century movie and the 17th-century opera — one that shows us how times have changed, but in unexpected ways.

In the film, all the characters seem to get what's coming to them, in conventional terms of right and wrong. The truly innocent characters are spared from ultimate harm, except for one who is actually martyred to the cause of righteousness. And the villains get their just deserts. The amoral rake played by John Malkovich winds up dead after a duel of honor. And the scheming Marquise played by Glenn Close — a character who says her favorite word is "cruelty" — suffers what may be an even sterner fate, at least in her social circles. She's subjected to a humiliating, public "hooting," as she takes her box seat at the opera.

So, as provocative as the film is, it's also a traditional sort of morality play: The good are sanctified and rewarded, while the evil are reviled and left in oblivion.

A similar conflict is set up in Monteverdi's opera, in which another pair of philandering lovers try to quench their desires at the expense of established, moral conventions. But the outcome is hardly traditional.

The Coronation of Poppea was written in Venice, in the midst of a lively, intellectual debate over the relative value of spiritual ideals versus sensual pleasures. In the opera, that debate turns up in a conflict between loyalty and lust — and lust is the runaway winner. A faithful wife is humiliated and cast aside. A noble champion of reason and civility is condemned, and commits suicide. And the two, flagrantly illicit lovers wind up with exactly what they wanted — the freedom to enjoy unfettered bliss, extolled in one of opera's most sensuous duets.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Coronation of Poppea from one of the world's foremost venues for Baroque opera, the historic Drottningholm Court Theatre, in Sweden.

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