Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at The Boston Early Music Festival

Erica Schullar: Nelida Nassar  06.19.2015

The Boston Early Music Festival 2015 season was a tour de force, which culminated in masterful interpretations of the music of Claudio Monteverdi, beginning with the Vespers of 1610 and continuing with his three surviving operas, Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The first opera based on a historical drama of psychological intrigue, Poppea concentrates on one episode in the life of the Roman emperor Nerone and paints a vivid portrait of the conflict of human passions, opposing virtue, embodied by Seneca, to evil, represented by Poppea and Nerone’s adulterous love.

The plot, with its secondary stories and mingling of characters of low extraction with members of the nobility, generates many strong emotional interactions, which are effectively conveyed by stage director and set designer Gilbert Blin fine grasp and tuning to the plot, as well as the cast’s considerable acting and singing abilities. By alternating tragic and comic scenes, and by bringing together noble characters and common people the opera achieves a great dramatic force that captivated audiences of the time and continues to do so today.

In Monteverdi’s epoch, it was already a challenge to dramatize a society about to shift from the enlightened world of philosophy to the darkness of a most brutal absolutism. In this sense, the opera is not unlike Racine’s tragedies. Here, the nascent monster, the tyrant Nerone, obliges his tutor and adviser, the philosopher, Seneca to commit suicide (in a message conveyed to him by Mercurio). In Poppea, dating from 1643, Monteverdi — using a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello — dared to draw on actual historical events and to adopt a critical stance toward them.

The basic message that Poppea bears is that neither La Fortuna nor La Virtù can compete with Amore/Cupid, who with a simple gesture can change the face of the world. Monteverdi’s final masterpiece, which appeared thirty-five years after his Orfeo, opened the era of “favola in musica”. A resident of Venice — where Rome is said to be riddled with vice — Monteverdi composed the opera under the sign of desire and seduction. Poppea’s beauty bewitches Nerone, thus provoking three irrevocable tragic events: Seneca’s death, Ottone’s exile, and Ottavia’s repudiation. The pillars of morality crumble one after the other leaving us without any character to cling to, only deliciously intoxicating music. In the twilight of his life, Monteverdi opens the doors of a sensory universe where the voice becomes a kiss, then gets transformed into powerful writing and music.

Poppea has survived in several different manuscripts, leading, not surprisingly to a certain degree of confusion, especially since some of the musical passages are not for certain by Monteverdi, including the beautiful final duet! The surviving manuscripts of 1646 and 1651 record only the basso continuo or harmonic structure of the music and some indications about the voices, but almost nothing about the instrumentation. The Boston Early Music Festival artistic directors’ Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, chose the 1651 Naples score “that boasts a four-part texture and consistently preferable melodies”.

Director Gilbert Blin together with a roster of first-class musicians, singers, light, stage and costume designers has woven seamlessly drama and style. Anne Watkins, the costume designer, convincingly demonstrated that stage costumes play a key role in the way we experience opera. She created lavish Baroque garments with flowing curves — and sometimes of voluminous splendor — draped costumes, skirts, tunics and gowns in gold, mulberry and sage richly embellished with trim, brocade, damask, and shimmering moiré. Her beautifully nuanced palette for the clothed gods favors shades of white and blue-white, but also white-green, white-pink and white-gold perhaps to create an aura of antiquity. The costumes, textiles and accessories (hats, hoods and trains), determined by the stage action, offered a glimpse of the rich material culture of the baroque era, and one can appreciate the challenges faced in designing them and the corresponding skill in surmounting them.

The libretti contain no formal program for stage design, just a few guidelines. This gave Gilbert Blin, the director and set designer, the freedom to conceive, successfully, an architecture articulating different atmospheres for scena comica and tragica, and in which verticality contrasts strongly with horizontality. To this end he created a proscenium (picture-frame) stage structure of neo-classical, colonnade Roman hall in fast diminishing perspective and painted trompe l’œil presenting the scenario sequence — palace, city and forest — with a minimal use of machinery. However, the main focus was the palace with the throne at its center. The frames were majestic, symmetrical, and supremely refined, clearly meant to enhance the presence of the singers while still being economical. The glowing and indirect lighting under Lenore Doxsee was particularly successful: what more
could one wish for?

The musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with Robert Mealy as concertmaster and the BEMF Chamber Ensemble stuck closely to Monteverdi’s music, and their superb playing — the instruments included four lutes, a violin, a viola, two violoncellos, a double bass, two chitarrones, a baroque guitar, a baroque harp, two lirones, a viola da gamba and a harpsichord — was always in the service of the action on stage. Their pragmatism and sensitivity have placed the members of the ensemble among today’s most poetic and fluent interpreters of early music.

Monteverdi exploited all the means of vocal expression available to a composer of his time: aria, arioso, arietta, ensemble and recitative; and in his hands the boundaries between these forms were exceptionally porous. The singers accurately followed the original score, but they were not all equally at home in this opera. The currently accepted practice in performing baroque music is that the role of Nerone (originally written for castrato) is entrusted to a countertenor. Unfortunately, David Hansen seems very uptight in this role, giving less substance to the character than he perhaps could have. He appears to be walking on eggshells, and his voice, although ample and well projected, has a touch of forced nasality. While his acting gives one a good sense of Nerone’s extravagance and seemingly mental instability, his acidic tones are, sad to say, simply a disappointment. And one cannot even try to explain this by invoking a lack of familiarity with the role, since he already played it under the baton of René Jacob.

The opposite impression is made by Poppea, sung here by the so beloved soprano of
this festival’s audience, Amanda Forsythe. Her radiant, bright, and full timber, of a
high tessitura, perfectly suits her role as the ingénue, and she gave a truly virtuosic performance. Yet, it must be said that she fails to convey the moral chaos lurking in
the darker side of Poppea’s character in a way that can put her intrigues into proper perspective, as she withdraws from everyone around her in a single-minded quest to become Empress and begins to taste the power this title brings.

The other female singers were equally stellar, exuding a sense of unlabored control even in the fortissimos. Shanon Mercer as Ottavia treats us to a bounteous portion of dramatic recitative. Her gestures and warm mezzo-soprano melodies flawlessly communicate her revengeful character’s weariness and unhappiness, making her the exact opposite of Poppea. She is magnificent in her great farewell to Rome, “Addio Roma,” set against a mysterious backlit stage. Teresa Wakim is very fresh, coy and perky, an irresistible Drusilla, completely at home in her role. She is a nice counterpoint to Poppea, with an appealing, beautifully restrained voice of silvery tone and agility. And Nathan Medley’s Ottone, with his deep timbre, provides a honeyed balm that partially compensates for Nerone’s acidic tones. Christian Immler, the impressive bass baritone who plays Seneca, is bold, compelling, and full of warmth — moving and convincing from the first syllable he utters. The consistent beauty and generosity of his singing reinforce his perceptive interpretation of the role and eloquently convey the philosopher’s humanity.

Both the Nannies are outstanding: Ottavia’s (tenor José Lemos) with her irresistible couplets on aging in women; and Arnalta (Laura Pudwell) with her silken lullaby Oblivion, sung to Poppea as she sleeps in the fairy garden, a deliziosa — offering the audience a moment of lyrical poetry under a pearly sky. A very strong team of secondary characters, including Valletto and Amore, both roles performed by the beautiful Nell Snaidas, surrounds these two. The only weakness here is that Snaidas lacks the power to project a Love as triumphant as one might have wished.

The clear stars this evening were Laura Pudwell as the dotty Arnalta, the blissfully bizarre countertenor Nathan Medley’s love-torn Ottone, and José Lemos as Ottavia’s nurse as well as Pissandro. I would like to hear more, too, of the tenor Zachary Wilder, who played the two roles of Lucano and one of the two consuls. The trio performed by Araron Sheehan, Zachary Wilder and Marco Busi: “Non mori, Seneca, no,” was a real joy.

Stephen Stubbs conducting was excellent: precise, attentive to contrasts, and always intent on clarifying the dramatic action. The orchestra provided a crisp sound, enriched by beautiful coloration. Overall, this was a really intense evening (pace a few slight voltage drops), and the audience responded to this beautiful experience of music and drama with an ecstatic ovation.

Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs: Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin: Stage Director & Set Designer
Anna Watkins: Costume Designer & Supervisor
Lenore Doxsee: Lighting Designer
Kathleen Fay: Executive Producer
Ellen Hargis: Assistant Stage Director

Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble
Amanda Forsythe: Poppea, Very noble lady and favorite of Nerone  though whom
she will      assume the crown

David Hansen: Nerone (Nero), Roman Emperor
Christian Immler: Seneca, Philosopher and Nerone’s teacher
Shannon Mercer: Ottavia (Octavia), Reigning Empress who shall be repudiated by Nerone
Nathan Medley: Ottone (Othon), Knight of the highest order
Teresa Wakim: Drusilla, Lady of the court in love with Ottone
Laura Pudwell: Arnalta, Old nurse and confidant of Poppea
José Lemos: Nutrice, Nurse of Empress Ottavia
Araron Sheehan & Zachary Wilder: Soldiere Pretoriani, two soldiers of the Praetorian Guard
Erica Schullar: La Fortuna (Fortune) & Damigella, Handmaid of the Empress
Danielle Reutter-Harrah: La Virtù (Virtue) & Pallade (Pallas Athena)
John Taylor Ward: Mercurio (Mercury)
Neill Snaidas: Amore (Cupid) & Valletto, the Empress’s page
Aaraon Sheehan, Zachary Wilder & Marco Bussi: Coro de’ Famigliari,
Chorus of Seneca’s devotees
Aaron Sheehan: Liberto, Captan of the Praetorium Guard
Zachary Wilder: Lucano (Lucan), Poet and close friend of Nerone
John Taylor Ward & Marco Bussi: Due Tribune (Two tribunes)

Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
Robert Mealy: Concertmaster
Julie Andrijeski: Violin
Laura Jeppesen: Viola
Robert Naim: Double Bass
Paul O’Dette: Chitarrone 
Stephen Stubbs: Chitarrone & Baroque Guitar
Maxine Eilander: Baroque Harp
Michael Sponseller: Harpsicord & Virginal
Alessandro Quarta: Harpsicord
David Morris: Lirone & Violoncello
Erin Headley: Viola da Gamba & Lirone

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