Monteverdi's last opera, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, was written in 1642 during the century that, according to Susan McClary, Michel Foucault describes as “a pivotal moment when the West started to alter radically its attitudes toward and treatment of human erotic behavior” (McClary 36). As McClary also points out, Foucault demonstrates that “the obsession always to talk — or sing — about sex...has the effect of continually stirring libidinal interests,” (McClary 36). How are these interests stirred in the duet between Nero and Lucan in act III, scene vi of Poppea, and, perhaps more importantly, towards whom are those interests aimed? Is it really Poppea that Nero and Lucan, Nero's confidante, are singing about, or are they in fact drawn toward each other?
While it is impossible to know what Monteverdi's intentions were, there is evidence to suggest that Nero and Lucan are engaged in a homoerotic relationship. First, the text of Busenello's libretto suggests an aria of some sort: all dramatic motion stops while Nero and Lucan sing in praise of someone the listener assumes to be Poppea. Yet despite the lack of plot-advancing narrative, the music vacillates between duple meter, traditionally used to notate recitative, and triple meter, generally reserved for emotionally charged arias and ariosos, suggesting some sort of confused state. It is best explained as representative of Nero's inner conflict over his feelings for both Lucan and Poppea. Normally, Nero's communication with Lucan would have been in duple meter while triple meter would have been reserved for amorous exchanges with Poppea. Therefore, Nero's use of both suggests an inability to fully hide his feelings toward Lucan. The metric inconstancy is particularly apparent since Nero and Lucan's duet immediately follows a more traditional exchange between the valletto and the damigella in the previous scene. The valletto and damigella exchange “light-hearted flirtation, the boy singing a song which might have come out of the Scherzi musicali, the girl taking it more seriously and more confidently in a smooth triple-time aria before they finally join rapturously together” (Arnold 128).
Secondly, it is important to note that when Nero and Lucan sing together it is often Lucan who takes the dominant role, despite Nero's apparent control. Lucan often introduces new text or musical ideas that foreshadow Nero's utterances, almost all of which are reactive (McClary 49). For example, Lucan first adds a melisma to the word “cantiam” in measure four, which Nero adopts and embellishes in the following two measures. To put it in purely sexual terms, much of Lucan's role is to provide musical foreplay, guiding Nero's response in whatever way he chooses. When Lucan is not engaged in foreplay, he is often enhancing Nero's pleasure by singing in parallel thirds with him and thereby emphasizing their sweet relationship.
The foreplay metaphor is taken to extremes in measure twenty-three when Lucan sings the words “Che spira glorie.” Susan McClary reminds us that “erotic desire undeniably ranks among the central themes of Italian madrigals, and vivid musical images simulating longing, frustration, or fulfillment occur in abundance in this repertory” (McClary 36). Monteverdi was familiar with the conventions of word painting, having published five books of madrigals between 1587 and 1605 (Grout and Palisca 204), and makes use of a rising sixteenth note motive on the word “glorie,” probably alluding to the sacred meaning of the word. However, this madrigalism can also be looked upon as a metaphor for arousal and subsequent erection and ejaculation.
According to McClary, “a belief that was then prevalent even in medicine and science...[was that] for purposes of reproduction, both male and female partners had to be aroused to the point of ejaculation” (McClary 37). Although Nero and Lucan are both male characters, a castrato sang the part of Nero. Therefore Nero was given a man's body instilled with effeminate qualities — not only was his voice in the female range, but the loss of reproductive capacity deprived him of complete masculinity. As a result he led a dual gender role. To Poppea, who was female, Nero played the male. But to Lucan, who was a tenor and therefore retained his full virility, Nero was relegated to playing the female. Either way, it was deemed necessary for both partners to become aroused.
Following the foreplay and arousal, “Lucan sings a bel canto melody...[while] Nero can do no more than gasp, 'Ah what a destiny', in single notes or short phrases” (Arnold 127). Here Lucan's text obviously has a double entendre: references to pain and death were often veiled allusions to sex (Saunders). It is no wonder Nero can only gasp, 'Ah what a destiny' when Lucan sings of “...lips, which, in speech or laughter/wound with invisible weapons/and confer joy on the soul while they slay” (Busenello 16).
Interestingly, Lucan's seduction of Nero is accompanied by a descending tetrachord basso ostinato, emblematic of a lament (Borgerding). This apparent conflict of emotions is reconciled when one realizes that although Nero enjoys Lucan's attentions immensely, he is powerless against Poppea's manipulations and is obliged to answer her every beck and call. Poppea's power over Nero undermines his relationship with Lucan and cuts short the intense feelings between the two men. This is evidenced by the somewhat abrupt entrance of Lucan's recitative following Nero's final “Ahi, destino!” and the change to minor that carries through to the end of the scene. The change in mood also symbolizes the release felt by Nero and Lucan after the build up to and achievement of orgasm.
Looking below the surface of Nero and Lucan's duet reveals evidence of a homoerotic relationship. The feasibility of such a relationship is heightened when taken in light of the fact that “the range of behaviors considered appropriate to men began to alter considerably in the seventeenth century. From this moment on in Western history, men are encouraged to stifle their feelings, while women are expected to indulge in emotional expression” (McClary 50). Nero and Lucan were clearly indulging themselves in emotional expression, casting their relationship in an effeminate light. This perspective has further consequences, stemming from the fact that late Renaissance and early Baroque music was viewed as a form of rhetoric, and that “A woman's rhetoric was usually understood as seduction, as a manifestation not of intellectual but of sexual power” (McClary 38). The signs of Nero and Lucan's relationship are not at all obvious, but once they are uncovered and explained it is apparent that Foucault's theory that “the obsession always to talk — or sing — about sex...has the effect of continually stirring libidinal interests” (McClary 36) can only be true.