The Royals We Love to Hate

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Poppaea Sabina
Poppaea Sabina

Boston Early Music Festival and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Mahaiwe Theater, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, June 20, 2009.


La Fortuna, Damigella Erica Schuller
La Virtù Deborah Rentz-Moore
Amore, Valletto` Nell Snaidas
Mercurio Jesse Blumberg
Ottone Holger Falk
Poppea Gillian Keith
Nerone Marcus Ullmann
Arnalta Laura Pudwell
Ottavia Stephanie Houtzeel
Nutrice Zachary Wilder
Seneca Christian Immler
Drusilla Amanda Forsythe

Instrumental Ensemble

Robert Mealy Violin,Concertmaster
CynthiaRoberts Violin
Laura Jeppesen Viola
David Morris Cello
Paul O’Dette Chitarrone
Stephen Stubbs Guitar, Chitarrone
Luca Guglielmi Harpsichord
Erin Headley Viola da Gamba
Maxine Eilander Baroque Harp

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Direction.  Gilbert Blin, Stage Director and Set Designer.

Ah, the sins of the Julio-Claudian dynasty! Murderous imbroglios, wayward concupiscence, and the carnival of corruptive lust. Such are the ingredients of great tragedies and great entertainments.  From Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar to Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, the irony of Rome’s noble empire at the mercy of moral monsters has become something of a Punch and Judy entertainment in our culture. We really love all the deceit behind those great ideals, no matter what the collateral damage. Claudio Monteverdi, who gave us the first great opera of all time, L’Orfeo (1604), has also given us a masterpiece from his final years: the seething, sarcastic, and erotic Roman masterpiece, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642-3).

Boston Early Music Festival’s production of this work lives up to the artistic scruples that have made BEMF this country’s most important purveyors of seventeenth-century opera. Poppea, unique among Monteverdi’s works, has made it to near-repertory status, but, not without a lot of cuts and frills. For example, Peter Hall’s production in the 1980s is a mere two-and-a-half hours. BEMF sees nothing wrong with presenting the full, uncut score, which is nearly four hours. Unlike L’Orfeo, with its rich and exotic orchestration (2 harpsichords, 2 organs, viole da braccio, viols, regal, trombones, cornets, double harp, chitarrone, clarino, muted trumpets, recorders, etc.), Poppea is scored for a string quartet with an Italian continuo (harpsichords, gamba, harp, and two chitarrone). The original autograph is lost, but two divergent manuscripts exist in Venice and Naples. BEMF has made a hybrid of the two, picking the most interesting numbers from each. The translation presented is an original one by one of early music’s greatest singers and BEMF veteran, Ellen Hargis. The libretto by Giovanni Busenello was carefully chosen by Monteverdi as a platform for musical and textual experimentation. It was probably the first opera libretto based on real historical figures rather than gods and assorted mythical characters. Absent are the simpler, dance-like “numbers” of L’Orfeo. Instead, Monteverdi crafted the subtlest music to the expression of the text. In many ways, the musical-textual innovations manifest in Poppea may be likened to Mozart’s late operatic style and to the path that Wagner would take some two hundred years later. Poppea even has a few leitmotifs—like the stubborn repeated-note figure that hugs to any character in a state of obdurate denial. The instrumental ritornelli are more refined and plastic in Poppea than in L’Orfeo, and while the vocalism is not as florid or virtuosic as in his earlier work, it suits the needs of the text to a tee.

However brilliant the technical achievements of this work are, what seems to appeal most is the merciless irony and amorality that pervades the plot. The life of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of Claudius I and Agrippina, was a well-known model of evil to Monteverdi’s audience. Nero cuckolds his friend Otho (Ottone) by stealing his wife, Poppea Sabina. Poppea had her sights set on a crown and promptly seduces Nero. Once Nero promises Poppea a share of his throne, she blithely discards her husband. Nero is already married to Octavia, but, no problem, he declares her frigid and infertile, which were simple grounds for divorce. The rejected Ottone, envisioning revenge, tenders disingenuous affection for Drusilla, a lady of the court who is, perhaps, the only guileless character in the opera. We quickly lose any sympathy for Ottone after he tries to frame Drusilla in his attempted murder of Poppea. Meanwhile, Seneca, Nero’s lofty, wingèd-word Stoic teacher, entreats Nero to see how this importune affair is no moral high ground from which to command his empire. His discarding of Octavia alone is scandalous. Poppea, seeing Seneca as another obstacle to her ascension, slanders him as a “manipulator” of Nero. Of course, it is she who is doing the manipulating. Nero angrily demands Seneca’s suicide; Ottone, Drusilla, and Octavia are banished; Poppea is finally crowned Empress. The goddess of Virtue, sullen and outcast from the opera’s outset, has had precious little influence on the lives unfolded here. Even Fortune, the deity derided by the others as “common and vulgar,” is trumped by Amore as the gray eminence of human baseness.

Although the opera ends here, Monteverdi’s audience knew their Roman history and could savor the anticipation of some tacit comeuppance. Poppea’s ambitions were to be short-lived: pregnant with another child, she was brutally kicked her to death by Nero. As a final irony, the jilted husband, Ottone, would return from exile to become Emperor of Rome. Poppea had picked the winner from the start.

The seductive Poppea is also a musically complex and shifty role. Her repeated chromatic declamations to Nero in Act I, scene III, “Do not leave me. . . ,” are coy, alligator tears in her seduction and finagling of the mad and feckless emperor. Gillian Keith, whose lovely stage presence amply complements an extraordinary voice, crafted a perfect Poppea, full of musical insinuation and nuance. Ottone, the trammeled lover, was performed with great gusto by the young German baritone Holger Falk. Nero, an unctuous part, was brilliantly performed by Marcus Ullmann, who studied with the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Keith and Ullmann could share the thrall at the opera’s close in the final love duet: “Pur ti miro,” this great musical treasure, was sung with such elegant reserve that the suggestion of sensuality seemed the essence of sublimation to art. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel was brilliant in her portrayal of the betrayed Ottavia; she was the embodiment of smoldering rage and despair in Act I’s “Disprezzata regina.” A special kudo goes to Laura Pudwell, as Arnalta, Poppea’s comic nurse. Like Don Giovanni’s Leporello, who basks in the glorious iniquities of his master, Arnalta is an unabashed abettor to Poppea’s guile. Responsible for some hilarious vaudevillian moments, Pudwell is also given the tender and lovely “Adagietta, Poppea,” a lullaby of sorts for her anxious mistress.

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, the heart of the continuo, have devoted their professional lives to the ancient art of illuminative accompaniment. Poppea, being the masterpiece it is, challenged them and their band for nearly four hours. While in fatter financial times we might have had more colorful instrumental supplements, one never ceased to marvel at ingenuity of the improvisation underscoring every singer’s phrase.

One easily understands the international acclaim BEMF has garnered. After four years of following these performers as they eagerly mount these ancient dramas, I am always astonished at their musical excellence and enterprise—something unprecedented in the world of early music.

Another reason to love Beantown.

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