The action takes place in Imperial Rome around AD 60, in and around Poppea's villa and in various locations within the imperial palace.
The goddesses of Fortune and Virtue dispute which of them has most power over humankind. They are interrupted by the god of Love, who claims greater power than either: "I tell the virtues what to do, I govern the fortunes of
men." When they have heard his story, he says, they will admit his superior powers.
Ottone arrives at Poppea's villa, intent on pursuing his love. Seeing the house guarded by the Emperor Nerone's soldiers he realises he has been supplanted, and his love song turns to a lament: "Ah, ah, perfidious
Poppea!" He leaves, and the waiting soldiers gossip about their master's amorous affairs, his neglect of matters of state and his treatment of the Empress Ottavia. Nerone and Poppea enter and exchange words of love before Nerone departs. Poppea is warned by her nurse, Arnalta, to be careful of the empress's wrath and to distrust Nerone's apparent love for her, but Poppea is confident:
"I fear no setback at all."
The scene switches to the palace, where Ottavia bemoans her lot; "Despised queen, wretched consort of the
emperor!" Her nurse suggests she take a lover of her own, advice which Ottavia angrily rejects. Seneca, Nerone's former tutor, addresses the empress with flattering words, and is mocked by Ottavia's page, Valleto, who threatens to set fire to the old man's beard. Left alone, Seneca receives a warning from the goddess Pallade that his life is in danger. Nerone enters and confides that he intends to displace Ottavia and marry Poppea. Seneca demurs; such a move would be divisive and unpopular. "I care nothing for the senate and the
people," replies Nero, and when the sage persists he is furiously dismissed. Poppea joins Nerone, and tells him that Seneca claims to be the power behind the imperial throne. This so angers Nerone that he instructs his guards to order Seneca to commit suicide.
After Nero leaves, Ottone steps forward and after failing to persuade Poppea to reinstate him in her affections, privately resolves to kill her. He is then comforted by a noblewoman, Drusilla; realising that he can never regain Poppea he offers to marry Drusilla, who joyfully accepts him. But Ottone admits to himself: "Drusilla is on my lips, Poppea is in my heart."
In his garden, Seneca learns from the god Mercurio that he is soon to die. The order duly arrives from Nerone, and Seneca instructs his friends to prepare a suicide bath. His followers try to persuade him to remain alive, but he rejects their pleading. "The warm current of my guiltless blood shall carpet with royal purple my road to death." At the palace Ottavia's page flirts with a lady-in-waiting, while Nerone and the poet Lucano celebrate the death of Seneca in a drunken, cavorting song contest, and compose love songs in honour of Poppea. Elsewhere in the palace Ottone, in a long soliloquy, ponders how he could have thought to kill Poppea with whom he remains hopelessly in love. He is interrupted by a summons from Ottavia, who to his dismay orders him to kill Poppea. Threatening to denounce him to Nerone unless he complies, she suggests that he disguise himself as a woman to commit the deed. Ottone agrees to do as she bids, privately calling on the gods to relieve him of his life. He then persuades Drusilla to lend him her clothes.
In the garden of Poppea's villa, Arnalta sings her mistress to sleep while the god of Love looks on. Ottone, now disguised as Drusilla, enters the garden and raises his sword to kill Poppea. Before he can do so, Love strikes the sword from his hand, and he runs away. His fleeing figure is seen by Arnalta and the now awakened Poppea, who believe that he is Drusilla. They call on their servants to give chase, while Love sings triumphantly
"I protected her!"
Drusilla muses on the life of happiness before her, when Arnalta arrives with a lictor. Arnalta accuses Drusilla of being Poppea's assailant, and she is arrested. As Nerone enters, Arnalta denounces Drusilla, who protests her innocence. Threatened with torture unless she names her accomplices, Drusilla decides to protect Ottone by confessing her own guilt. Nerone commands her to suffer a painful death, at which point Ottone rushes in and reveals the truth: that he had acted alone, at the command of the Empress Ottavia, and that Drusilla was innocent of complicity. Nerone is impressed by Drusilla's fortitude, and in an act of clemency spares Ottone's life, ordering him banished. Drusilla chooses exile with him. Nerone now feels entitled to act against Ottavia and she is exiled, too. This leaves the way open for him to marry Poppea, who is overjoyed: "No delay, no obstacle can come between us
Ottavia bids a quiet farewell to Rome, while in the throne room of the palace the coronation ceremony for Poppea is prepared. The Consuls and Tribunes enter, and after a brief eulogy place the crown on Poppea's head. Watching over the proceedings is the god of Love with his mother, Venere and a divine chorus. Nerone and Poppea sing a rapturous love duet ("I gaze at you, I possess
you") as the opera ends.
background of the opera comes from the poem Orlando Furioso. The heroic
knight Ruggiero is destined to a short but glorious life, and a benevolent
magician is always whisking him away from the arms of his fiancée,
Bradamante. Bradamante is not the type to put up with the constant
disappearance of her lover, and she spends vast portions of the poem in
full armor chasing after him. Just before the opera begins she has rescued
him from an enchanted castle, only to have her flying horse (a hippogriff)
take a fancy to Ruggiero and fly off with him. Ruggiero and the hippogriff
land on an island in the middle of the ocean. As the hippogriff begins to
eat the leaves of a myrtle bush, Ruggiero is startled to hear the bush
begin to speak. The bush reveals that it was once a living soul named Sir
Astolfo, and the island belongs to the sister sorceresses Alcina and
Morgana. The beautiful Alcina seduces every knight that lands on her isle,
but soon tires of her lovers and changes them into stones, animals,
plants, or anything that strikes her fancy. Despite Astolfo's warning,
Ruggiero strides off to meet this sorceress— and falls under her spell.
again searching for her lover, arrives on Alcina's island with Ruggiero's
former tutor, Melisso. Dressed in armor, Bradamante looks like a young man
and goes by the name of her own brother, Ricciardo. She and Melisso
possess a magic ring which enables the wearer to see through illusion,
which they plan to use to break Alcina's spells and release her captives.
first person they meet is the sorceress Morgana. Barely human and with no
understanding of true love, she immediately abandons her own lover Oronte
for the handsome 'Ricciardo.' Morgana conveys the visitors to Alcina's
court, where Bradamante is dismayed to discover that Ruggiero is besotted
with Alcina and in a state of complete amnesia about his previous life.
Also at Alcina's court is a boy, Oberto, who is looking for his father,
Astolfo, who was last seen heading toward this island. Bradamante guesses
that Astolfo is now transformed into something, but she holds her peace
and concerns herself with Ruggiero. Bradamante and Melisso rebuke Ruggiero
for his desertion, but he can't think of anything except Alcina.
Oronte discovers that Morgana has fallen in love with 'Ricciardo,' and
challenges 'him' to a duel. Morgana stops the fight, but Oronte is in a
foul mood and takes it out on Ruggiero. He tells the young man exactly how
Alcina treats her former lovers and adds that, as far as he can tell,
Alcina has fallen in love with the newcomer, Ricciardo. Ruggiero is
horrified and overwhelms Alcina with his jealous fury. Things get even
worse when 'Ricciardo' enters and pretends to admire Alcina. Alcina calms
Ruggiero, but Bradamante is so upset at seeing her fiancé wooed before
her very eyes that she reveals her true identity to Ruggiero. Melisso
hastily contradicts her and Ruggiero becomes very confused.
tells Morgana that she plans to turn Ricciardo into an animal, just to
show Ruggiero how much she really loves him. Morgana begs Ricciardo to
escape the island and Alcina's clutches, but 'he' says he'd rather stay,
as he loves another. Morgana believes that this other person is herself,
and the act ends with her triumphant aria "Tornami a vagheggiar."
recalls Ruggiero to reason and duty by letting him wear the magic ring:
under its influence, Ruggiero sees the island as it really is—a desert,
peopled with monsters. Appalled, he realizes he must leave, and sings the
famous aria "Verdi prati" ("Green meadows") where he
admits that even though he knows the island and Alcina are mere illusion,
their beauty will haunt him for the rest of his life.
warns Ruggiero that he can’t just leave; Alcina still wields immense
power, and he should cover his escape by telling her that he wishes to go
hunting. Ruggiero agrees, but, thoroughly bewildered by the magic and
illusion surrounding him, he refuses to believe his eyes when he at last
sees Bradamante as herself, believing that she may be another of Alcina's
illusions. Bradamante is in despair, as is Alcina. Convinced of Ruggiero's
indifference, she enters to turn Ricciardo into an animal, and Ruggiero
has to pull himself together quickly and convince the sorceress that he
doesn’t need any proof of her love. It is at this point that the
audience realises that Alcina genuinely loves Ruggiero; from now until the
end of the opera, she is depicted sympathetically.
realizes that Ricciardo, Melisso and Ruggiero are in some sort of
alliance, and Morgana and Alcina realise they are being deceived. But it
is too late: Alcina's powers depend on illusion and, as true love enters
her life, her magic powers slip away. As the act ends, Alcina tries to
call up evil spirits to stop Ruggiero from leaving her, but her magic
fails her—symbolized by the orchestra falling silent as Alcina continues
to sing her invocation.
this the opera finishes swiftly. Morgana and Oronte try to rebuild their
relationship; she returns to him and he rebuffs her but (once she is
offstage) admits he loves her still. Ruggiero returns to his proper heroic
status and sings an aria accompanied by high horns; Oberto is introduced
to a lion, to whom he feels strangely attached, and Alcina sings a
desolate aria in which she longs for oblivion.
and Ruggiero decide that they need to destroy the source of Alcina's
magic, usually represented as an urn. Alcina pleads with them, but
Ruggiero is deaf to her appeals and smashes the urn. As he does so,
everything is both ruined and restored. Alcina's magic palace crumbles to
dust and she and Morgana sink into the ground, but Alcina's lovers are
returned to their proper selves. The lion turns into Oberto’s father,
Astolfo, and other people stumble on, “I was a rock,” says one, “I a
tree” says another, and “I a wave in the ocean…” All the humans
sing of their relief and joy, and Alcina is forgotten.