Friday, June 26, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Poppea

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea)
L'incoronazione di Poppea
Sunday, June 14, Boston University Theater. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

The culminating performance of the Monteverdi Trilogy at the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival was, fittingly, Monteverdi's last and greatest opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). In his essay "Thoughts on Late Style," (London Review of Books, 5 August 2004), the critic Edward Said wrote that "the accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works....But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?" Poppea, composed when Monteverdi was 75 years old and first performed just a few months before his death, is one such dark and challenging late work.

As I wrote in the Opera Guide to Poppea, Giovanni Busenello's libretto contains some of the most cynical, corrupt and ruthless characters in all opera. The Roman emperor Nerone (Nero, sung by David Hansen) sleeps with Poppea (Amanda Forsythe), the wife of his subordinate Ottone (Otho, sung by Nathan Medley), and forces his advisor Seneca (Christian Immler) to commit suicide when his counsel becomes inconvenient. Nerone's wife Ottavia (Octavia, sung by Shannon Mercer), seeing herself supplanted, blackmails the cuckolded Ottone into conspiring to murder Poppea. In this attempt Ottone is aided by Drusilla (Teresa Wakim), his former lover, whom he dumped for Poppea; Drusilla hopes that, once Poppea is dead, Ottone will return to her. When the murder conspiracy fails, Ottavia is repudiated, Ottavia, Ottone and Drusilla are banished into exile, and Poppea is crowned the Empress of Rome.

According to Tacitus and Suetonius, the fates of most of these characters would be grim. In exile, Octavia was murdered on Nero's orders. Poppea was empress for two years, until Nero in a fit of rage kicked her and her unborn child to death. A few years later Nero would be overthrown and killed; his death would inaugurate a civil war. During the Year of the Four Emperors that followed Nero's death, Otho would become the ruler of Rome for all of three months; his brief reign would be ended by suicide.

The BEMF production of Poppea, with stage direction by Gilbert Blin, did full justice to multiple modes of this complex work. Poppea encompasses comedy, tragedy, irony, and pathos—sometimes all in the same scene—and still has the power to unsettle us more than 370 years after its first performance. As with the other operas in the Monteverdi Trilogy, it was superbly cast, with many of the same ensemble of singers who had performed in L'Orfeo and Ulisse.

David Hansen as Nerone was on the incisive, if at times acidulous, end of the countertenor tonal spectrum. In his timbre and free use of vibrato Hansen reminded us more than anyone of David Daniels. Hansen's sound wasn't always appealing, but it was always illustrative of his petulant, imperious and mercurial character.

The most alluring voice in the cast belonged to Amanda Forsythe, the singer portraying the opera's most alluring character, Poppea. Forsythe's sweet-toned soprano offered a striking contrast to Poppea's utter shamelessness, and at the same time beautifully exemplified her seductive power and blithe heedlessness of the destruction she's wreaking on the lives of everyone around her.

Another excellent performance was given by Teresa Wakim as Drusilla, a woman who, perhaps knowingly, deceives herself about her former lover's residual feelings. Drusilla has to inspire the sympathy of anyone who has ever convinced him- or herself that, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, the object of their passion returns their feelings; and isn't that an uncomfortable position that's been occupied at one time or another by every one of us?

And Nell Snaidas was delightfully irrepressible as Amore (Cupid), who, in the opera's prologue, correctly predicts his victory over La Fortuna (Fortune, sung by Erica Schuller) and La Virtù (Virtue, sung by Danielle Reutter-Harrah)); Snaidas also excelled as the comically amorous page Valleto.

The strong cast, the dazzling playing of the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble under the musical direction of Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Blin's elegant set and Anna Watkins' handsome costumes combined to make the final production of the Monteverdi Trilogy exceptional.

Poppea itself ends with one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera, "Pur ti miro" ("I gaze at you"), sung by an ecstatic Nerone and Poppea at the moment of their victory. But this duet is as bitter as it is beautiful. As I wrote in the Opera Guide to Poppea, "as they sing so gloriously of their love, Nerone and Poppea are surrounded by the bodies of their victims, and this moment of Poppea's triumph is shadowed by our knowledge of her later violent death...As Nerone and Poppea sing 'Più non peno, più non moro' ('No more pain, no more death') their voices clash on 'pain' and 'death.' The opera may be ending 'happily' but there will be plenty of pain and death to follow."

Sylvia McNair (Poppea) and Dana Hanchard (Nerone) perform "Pur ti miro" with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

In the final moments of the BEMF production, Blin devised an understated but disquieting gesture. As the lovers sang the affirmations of the final words, "si mio ben, si mio cor, mia vita, si" (Yes, my love, yes, my heart, my life, yes), Nerone turned away from Poppea and stared out at us. It was a chilling look, a reminder of the darkness we'd witnessed and a suggestion of the horror to come. A brilliant end to an unforgettable experience.

Other posts on the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival:
Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

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