Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Claudio Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Boston Early Music Festival, 2009

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Gillian Keith as Poppea and Marcus Ullmann as Nero in Moneverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea
Gillian Keith as Poppea and Marcus Ullmann as Nero in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea

L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea)
Music by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Libretto by Francesco Busenello (1598-1659)

June 6, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 14, 2009
The Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA

June 19, 20, and 21, 2009
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle Street, Great Barrington, MA

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Gilbert Blin, Set Designer
Lenore Doxsee, Lighting Designer
Kathleen Fay, Executive Producer
Abbie H. Katz, Associate Producer
Ellen Hargis, Assistant to the Stage Director

Gillian Keith, Poppea
Marcus Ullmann, Nerone
Stephanie Houtzeel, Ottavia
Holger Falk, Ottone
Amanda Forsythe, Drusilla
Christian Immler, Seneca
Laura Pudwell, Arnalta
William Hite, Lucano|
Nell Snaidas, Amore / Valletto
Aaron Sheehan, Liberto
Erica Schuller, La Fortuna / Damigella
Zachary Wilder, Nutrice
Douglas Williams, Littore
Jesse Blumberg, Mercurio
Deborah Rentz-Moore, La Virtù

One of the happy results of the economic crisis—and there have been some—was this important and delightful production of one of the greatest of operas, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. BEMF’s original plan, in keeping with their policy of devoting their operatic performances to spectacular stagings of rarely performed, ambitious works, was to present Antiochus und Stratonica (1708) by Christoph Graupner (1683-1760). At the very least Poppea would need only some forty odd people on stage, as opposed to over a hundred in the Graupner, and no machinery, large choruses, or dancers. Poppea was also BEMF’s first repetition of an opera: They staged it at the very first festival in 1981. BEMF has performed numerous important operas, but, if any opera deserves revisitation, it is Poppea. In fact, as brilliant and as successful as this production was, Poppea presents so many problems to specialists, as well as to audiences, that no single production can solve them all, and I can only hope that the people behind this production, above all Gilbert Blin and Ellen Hargis, as well as the musical principles, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, will have an opportunity to return to it at least once again in their careers, to develop and refine their insights, which were both intellectually trenchant as well as blessed with common sense of the best kind. The Seattle Ring, Caramoor’s Semiramide, and this Poppea show how much there is a lot to be gained by respecting the composer’s intentions and the conventions of his time. In my enthusiasm I saw the production twice. I’d venture to say that they got it right.

To explain this, it’s best to start with the symposium about the production, which was held as part of the festival. As M. Blin and Ms. Hargis and others discussed their preparations, it was immediately clear that they placed fidelity to the dramatic and psychological content of the opera ahead of historical issues, which also, but secondarily, guided the production. The second idea that occurred to me, as I listened to the question and answer sessions, is that modern audiences, even informed ones, are puzzled, even troubled by Busenello and Monteverdi’s “concept.” They seem to find it a painful task to admit that these characters, who are patently “no better than they should be” are in any way sympathetic. Of course everyone, especialy the academics, were looking at it from their own particular parti pris. For example, Drusilla, seen from a traditional point of view, is the most laudable, because, in contrast to Poppea’s double agenda, she selflessly (and thoughtlessly) commits to becoming an accessory in a capital crime, simply for the love of a man: Ottone, despicable schemer that he is. (and Amanda Forsythe’s portrayal of the character was indeed sympathetic) However, from a feminist perspective, as the poser of the question made clear, Drusilla is doubly despicable, because she allows herself to be manipulated into a self-destructive situation by a demonstrably undependable male, and, in this production and Holger Falk’s brilliant interpretation, he is a complex creature: at his best weak, at his worst self-serving, even treacherous, but he is pathetically at the mercy of his feelings from moment to moment and is often tortured by them, and, if we give ourselves over to what we see and hear, we feel some empathy for him in his isolation.

All of the characters are deeply flawed, and Busenello and Monteverdi make sure we get a good look at them, both at their best and at their worst. As I experienced it in this production the action was swathed in a particularly Italian kind of cynicism, which can be both spiteful and generous at once. (Tacitus, nostalgic for a bygone Rome he idealized for his own reasons, was by no means so accommodating.) Even Nero himself, the love-smitten emperor around whom the action revolves, shows only relatively wholesome appetites: his lady love and perhaps a Pretorian Guard or two on the side, to be shared by them both. Nero was still young and had much to learn. Monteverdi’s contemporaries knew their Tacitus and Suetonius better than we do, and they understood B & M’ s gentle characterization of the young Nero, before his vices could come to full flower. As the pasticcio unfolded, I found myself growing rather fond of these errant Romans.

As I mentioned, M. Blin and his colleagues began with the characters and the reality they create for themselves on stage, for us, as well as for Monteverdi’s audience. They, and certainly their partly academic audience, seemed to be less concerned with the traditions of classical theater, and the ancient poetic strategy of mixing genres, die Kreuzung der Gattungen, as the great Latinist Wilhelm Kroll conceived it. Just as in old Hollywood movies, Roman and even pre-Hellenistic litterati were accustomed to making their first encounter with a work of poetry or theater through its type: tragedy and comedy had their own conventions. Aristotle’s descriptions of them invite a multitude of exceptions, but they did have their boundaries. New Yorkers had an opportunity to see Euripides juggle them about in CSC’s production of his Orestes last spring. Hellenistic authors formalized the technique, and their Roman imitators elaborated further, interweaving tragicomic threads with unsurpassable elegance. How could their Renaissance epigoni dare to rival Ovid, who could sing of love in all its forms: tragic, comic, and everything in between—bookending, in fact his traditional extremes with the pathetic and the ridiculous! Busenello and Monteverdi wrote for a double audience, their fellow academicians and a paying general public. Venice was early in transferring the luxuries of aristocratic entertainments to commercially viable public performances. In Poppea Monteverdi and Busenello created a human drama of the same order as Shakespeare. In it, you can find a bit of All’s Well, some Othello, and a strong dose of Henry IV, Part ii, and I could go on. Seeing Poppea in this production, you might well think that the English and the Italian traditions, where Shakespeare found so many of his sources, were not so far apart.

By contrast, the Italians adhered faithfully to the types of Hellenistic and Plautine comedy, as well as la commedia dell’arte, like the youngish Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors. Nutrice and Valletto are commedia dell’arte types, as their names make clear, as well as Arnalta, Poppea’s old nurse. The creators remained true to the tradition, but raised it to another order of expression. As a character Arnalta is all-important, as a lifelong servant she is both more perceptive, but less able to bring her actions into effect than her superiors. She can only give advice. Despina in Così Fan Tutte has a much easier job of it than Arnalta, who takes it all in her stride nonetheless. In fact this Mozartian parallel is apt, but I’d compare Poppea more to Le Nozze di Figaro than to Così. In fact these two masterpieces seem like sisters for their objective portraiture of a cast of characters who are by no means admirable, but like the rest of us in our erratic ways. In fact, in the operatic repertory, Figaro seems like a grandaughter who has inherited her grandmother’s appearance and behavior—which was no accident, since Lorenzo da Ponte was a keen student of Renaissance literature. M. Blin has been working on a series of historically informed productions of the Mozart operas in Europe, so I imagine the resemblance is no accident, and none of us should forget this easy flow from Monteverdi to Mozart to…shall I draw parallels with Götterdämmerung?

In Poppea everything revolves around the court, an environment Monteverdi knew better than he would have liked to. As bitter as his experience had been, he and Busenello were able to face it wearing comic masks. On the other hand, this witty portrayal of “humanity as it really is,” with its joyous celebration of love at its conclusion, contains a tragic core in the destruction of Seneca. In fact it is not really tragic, since Seneca is not so much a victim of his own nature as he is a victim of the court. What’s more, he embraces death with joy as a release from the vanities of court life, as his friends lament his departure. His death points a moral, and the viewpoint of both the character and the authors is moralistic, more like the dark side of satire than real tragedy, or, rather, Aristotelean tragedy, since Seneca’s own brand of tragedy is indeed moralistic. Busenello and Monteverdi have Seneca play out his own tragic genre in his death. While Poppea is the precise opposite of Seneca, since she is able to manipulate her situation at court to a brilliantly successful attainment of her own ends, her adventure comes close to tragedy, averted only by divine intervention. Conversely, when we meet Seneca it is in an hilarious comic scene, in which he is roasted by his pupil, Valletto. In this scene we see him from Valletto’s point of view, as a pompous, scheming bore, expressed in the most derisive manner. It is almost a shock to encounter Seneca’s true nobility of spirit later on. In the same spirit, Seneca’s solemn departure from life is followed by a ribald seduction scene between Valletto and Ottavia’s maid, Damigella—a celebration of love in itself. It is clear that the learned collaborators’ constant shifting between the comic and the serious through bold contrasts was a deliberate and brilliantly managed gambit of Alexandrian aesthetics, intended to delight Busenello’s friends in the Accademia degli Incogniti.

L’Incoronazione di Poppea has become one of the most popular early operas in mainstream houses. Its setting in Nero’s decadent court and heady sexuality make it a prime subject for the practitioners of Regieoper, and a musically authentic performance may be totally modernized on stage. It is always cut (that is, after a selection from the various musical and textual sources has been made), and directors tend to cut what is not conducive to their own purposes. Usually the decision is influenced by the director’s struggle with the issue of the aggressively mixed genres. At the symposium one of the speakers cited a performance in which all the comic scenes and characters were omitted. Most often they are at least reduced. At a pre-performance lecture the musical directors claimed that the BEMF version was about as complete as anyone was likely to see, with only twenty minutes to a half-hour excised. They and Gilbert Blin from the very beginning decided to respect the opera as it is and to preserve the balance, or rather the violent see-sawing, between the serious and the comic. This didn’t make their jobs any easier, but they brought it off brilliantly. I detected only one instance of unintended laughter among the Boston audience (inspired by Ottone’s cross-dressing), who were delighted with the production at the end, responding with long and loud applause, although I overheard several comments about the moral shortcomings of the characters, which surprised me, because I found them, as I have said, rather likeable, if far from admirable, although I suppose I was glad that there was a proscenium and an orchestra between them and me.

The costumes were no less than the sumptuous recreations of baroque interpretations of ancient Roman garb one would expect from BEMF. The set, on the other hand, handsome as it was, was somewhat simpler than usual, reflecting the necessary economies. The audience looked over an open area, where most of the action took place, into a deep, receding space flanked by classical façades, the design modelled faithfully on Palladio and Scamozzi’s Teatro Olimpico and its kin. Scene changes were somewhat curtailed, but never to the detriment of the performance. In the program essay Gilbert Blin justifies this with an unconfirmed mention of a paired-down revival of Poppea being mounted hastily in Paris in 1647 as a substitute for a new opera which was not yet ready. Basically, the document (a letter by the castrato Stefano Costa, the first Nero, who had come to Paris to sing in the production) documents the omission of machinery and elaborate sets in the performance practice of the time, and the use of elaborate costumes as compensation—exactly what Gilbert Blin and costume designer Anna Watkins accomplished so successfully in this production.

Since there were no machines, Fortuna and Virtù introduced the opera from pedestals, and the gods walked among the mortals, creating all sorts of interesting interactions, but occasionally some crowding as well, more noticeably on the Mahaiwe stage than at the excellent Virginia Wimberley Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts, although their stages are virtually the same size. The Calderwood Pavilion, which opened in 2004, is a handsome contemporary structure which seats only 350 people. The intimacy of the space and its clean, direct acoustics were ideal. It is not entirely welcome news that the festival will return to the Cutler Majestic Theatre in 2011. The BEMF opera productions can easily fill the larger hall, of course, but its acoustics are spotty at best, and Opera Boston find it necessary to use extensive and often obnoxious amplification in their performances. However, nothing can match the incompetence of the Mahaiwe sound engineer, who decided that Ottavia’s final aria needed a boost, since she was singing from the acoustically impaired back area, and turned up the volume to an absurd level, making Stephanie Houtzeel’s superb dramatic singing seem ridiculous, and Stubbs and O’Dette’s chitarroni surreally overblown. This aberration only lasted a minute or two, but they were important minutes.

The orchestra, smaller than the usual BEMF opera orchestra and composed only of strings, played responsively, with commitment, and plenty of energy. A good part of the long rehearsal period is devoted to developing a close interaction between the singers and the conductorless orchestra. The whole group must follow the singers’ rubato and pauses, which the ensemble did with precision and sensitivity. This year the group was enhanced with the amazing keyboard virtuoso Luca Guglielmi and the great gamba player, Erin Headley, who also participated in a surpassingly beautiful duo recital I shall discuss elsewhere.

The singers, were cast with Antiochus and Stratonica in mind. Hence some of them, if you consider their biographies, were not specialists in Monteverdi or the early baroque at all, and brought broad operatic experience in the standard repertoire, ranging from the eighteenth into the twentieth century, and this was noticeable in their approaches. For example, Marcus Ullman, who played Nero, a castrato role often given to a counter-tenor or female soprano today, could sing a fine Tamino or Die Schöne Müllerin. I especially admired his winning portrayal of Nero, as well as his creamy tenor voice, which, when he covered his high notes, showed an especially appealing implementation of a typically German nasal timbre. It gave his work an appealing old-fashioned quality.

Seen in a larger context, the casting had the most welcome effect of reinforcing the continuity between Monteverdi’s work and his classical and romantic successors: Handel, Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, et. al. This connection with the present day and the tradition of opera and music in between is the one thing we lose in historical performance, and it was gratifying to see it restored through this unexpected change in programming. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel, who gave a grand-scale interpretation of the frustrated, vindictive Ottavia, whose plotting continually narrows her options, is another singer who has made a name for herself in continental Europe singing a broad range of roles from Mozart to Richard Strauss, but including some Purcell. Her part was full of demanding ornaments and runs, and she negotiated them all impeccably. The wronged spouse and her sinister companion, Nutrice, attract little sympathy, since, in the metaphysical scheme of things, her entire being revolves around the denial of love.

The Canadian soprano Gillian Keith, who sang Poppea, on the other hand, has worked extensively with period instrument ensembles, especially in Purcell, Bach, and Handel, but not neglecting later music, like Britten and Debussy songs and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. She has sung the role of Poppea in Basel. She projected her character through the sheer beauty of her voice and her expansive, elegantly shaped phrasing, as well as her way of giving herself over to sensuality without losing her focus on her goals or the people she must circumvent to attain them. Holding Nero’s attention is the least of her problems.

Baritone Holger Falk, who sang the difficult role of Ottone, Poppea’s former lover, makes specialities of both contemporary and early music, along with the standard operatic repertoire. As an actor, he faced the problem of balancing the conflicting sides of Ottone’s character as well as the many, often confused states of mind he passes through from the moment he returns to Rome to find Poppea in the midst of an affair with the emperor, to his audience with Ottavia, in which she pursuades him to disguise himself as a woman and murder Poppea, to his divinely enforced rescue of his new lover, Drusilla, whom he has incriminated, to their joint abjuration of court life and embrace of exile. As a character he is both despicable and rather sympathetic, for the emotional torture he suffers. It’s necessary to make the most of that, because if he is too low a creature, the audience will lose interest in him or find him ridiculous. In the denouement of this production, he saves Drusilla only when divine agents physically take hold of him and drag him before Nero and Drusilla, who doggedly confesses to the attempted murder in order to save him. (At the Mahaiwe, this bit of action, which is not supported by anything in the libretti, seemed to have been significantly curtailed.) His own confession then results in a comic duel of words between them. Holger Falk managed all this with impressive control. For all his waywardness and treachery, the audience could still take pleasure in his final enlightenment and pairing with loyal Drusilla, sung with great style and acted with feeling by Amanda Forsythe. His baritone was full of color and variety, dark in the lower and middle regions and lighter at the top. His instrument served him splendidly in his lyrical love-lorn passages as well as in his agitated, florid passages.

Christian Immler, who made a powerful impression as Seneca, sings the staple nineteenth and twentieth century repertory along with baroque composers, for example Bach and Charpentier. He has sung under conductors like Minkowski, Heerweghe, and Christie. Immler must show his character from two radically different aspects, first the charlatan philosopher who annoys everyone in the court with his prating, while he schemes to increase his influence over the emperor, and secondly, the enlightened philosopher who renounces the court and embraces death. His full, dark voice suited his music perfectly, which he sang with beautiful color and phrasing as well as conviction. It is interesting to note that Seneca’s great final scene was omitted in the Naples score, presumably because in Naples, where the influence of the Church was stronger than in Venice, Seneca’s praise of suicide would have caused offence.

Poppea and Ottavia, each have their own nurses as confidantes and maids. Both are largely comic parts, although Poppea’s Arnalta, magnificently sung and acted by Laura Pudwell, is given a more serious dimension, as she advises Poppea in her truly dangerous position. She also gets some of the most gorgeous, evocative music in the opera. Dressed to type in a classic costume, Pudwell used her considerable height and amplified mass to produce hilarious body language and sight gags, not to mention her facial expressions and the sharp inflection and humorous color of her large, plummy mezzo voice. Tenor Zachary Wilder sang Ottavia’s Nutrice, a part sometimes omitted entirely, in drag, executing the familiar gestures of this particular comic ploy with terrific flair and aplomb, not a bit less effective than Pudwell in pulling off a laugh. He used falsetto sparingly, and always to great effect. Nutrice is a considerably less appealing creature than Arnalta. Usually she is scheming on behalf of her mistress, effectively casting her in a bad light.

But the opera begins with a disputation between Fortune and Virtue interrupted by Love, who claims a superior place in the order of things, which is amply borne out by the story, in which her interventions save the imperial palace from disaster. The opera concludes with Love’s crowning of Poppea at the opera’s sensuous and triumphant conclusion. Both Amore and the bratty (later incessently randy) Valletto were sung by another Canadian, Nell Snaidas, in a comic tour de force. While her Amore ran the risk of jumping beyond the sprightly into the hyperactive, she pointed her gestures and her vocal acting so well, that her energetic gesticulation consistently made its point. As if her funny and engaging portrayal of the amoral boy-god weren’t enough, Snaidas threw herself into Valletto with equal energy and wit—an equally broad and daring portrayal which never failed to add to the good spirits of the production, as obnoxious an adolescent as Valletto is. On the other hand his physical arousal in the presence of Damigella, and his gradual discovery of its nature, was charming in the warm-heartedness of the naughty little scene. Not much later the same impulses drive the page to annoy Drusilla in an equally amusing incident. In both roles, Nell Snaidas makes the best of her brilliant, well-rounded soprano, using comic distortions with restraint and a purpose.

The secondary parts were ably filled. Two prominent local singers were especially strong. Aaron Sheehan made a fine impression with his bright, flexible tenor as Liberto, and William Hite was a sympathetic Lucan, although I find the biggest disappointment in Poppea is Busenello and Monteverdi’s failure to make more of the author of the Bellum Civile, especially after Petronius has given us such a wickedly amusing perspective on the poet and his work. Or what about Petronius himself, so sympathetically portrayed by Tacitus? Busenello clearly chose to handle history with a light touch, freely inventing after an initial impetus from the bitter historian. His plot and characters get all the help they need from stock commedia dell’arte types, e.g. the nurses, in whom both creators clearly took much delight. Seneca himself, the only historical character other than the principles to be fully developed, is partly the historical L. Annaeus Seneca the Younger and partly another commedia dell’arte type, the pompous, fraudulent Dottore.

Curiously, Busenello and Monteverdi bring their historical characters to life by assmilating them to type. Far from becoming flat, they expand with generality and become comic, leaving them free to intertwine plot and psychology ad libitum. The characters’ incessant behavorial twists and Monteverdi’s glorious music fill in the rest.

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