The Boston Early Music Festival began its week-long marathon of performances and exhibits with Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea on Saturday evening at the modest-sized Calderwood Pavilion. The choice of programming was the center of some disheartening discussions in late May, when the festival announced that their original intentions to produce Christoph Graupner’s Antiochus and Stratonica (for the first time in over 300 years) would have to be “postponed to a later Festival” due to consequences of the recession. The planned production of the Graupner opera, a fairly prolific composer of the early Baroque (but historically unrecognized until the recent revival of his music) was said to have required over 100 performers, supported by a 40-piece orchestra. The choice to instead perform Monteverdi’s Poppea required less than half the cast and crew, and accommodated contracts that had already been drawn with some of the performers. Despite the financial setbacks and re-programming fiasco, co-directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs delivered an excellent production. At the end of the night, BEMF’s presentation of Poppea seemed like anything but a compromise.
L’incoronazione di Poppea is Monteverdi’s last opera, and is one of the most frequently performed operas of the 17th century (for good reason). The central theme of the opera is the triumph of love over reason, highlighting the tagline of the Festival: The Power of Love. The opera follows the affair of Nero (Marcus Ullmann) and Poppea (Gillian Keith), as they overthrow empress Ottavia (Stephanie Houtzeel), while a disgruntled yet meek ex-lover, Ottone (Holger Falk) obsesses over his lost courtship with Poppea, and is eventually ordered by Ottavia to kill Poppea, which he then decides would best be accomplished by cross-dressing into the disguise of his new lover, Drusilla (Amanda Forsythe). Meanwhile the servants and guards are the only scarce source of wisdom, which goes unheeded along with the advice of Nero’s teacher and advisor, Seneca (Christian Immler), who is ordered to death shortly after the first act on Nero’s whim. The unfolding of all of the events are framed by goddesses Fortuna (Erica Schuller) and Virtù (Deborah Rentz-Moore), who helplessly recede to the superiority of Amoré (Nell Snaidas). The opera seria is often described as a tragicomedy. The most admirable characters are either killed or exiled, and the corrupt and oppressive Nero ends up with Poppea- and they live happily ever after (for a short time, at least, until history tells us Nero will later kick a pregnant Poppea in the stomach, killing her).
One of the most successful aspects of this production was the palpability of the characters. In addition to being top-notch singers, the cast was constantly teeming with persona, humor, and pathos- especially in the moments featuring Holger Falk or Nell Snaidas. Leads Keith, Ullmann, and Houtzeel performed exquisitely, but it was Amanda Forsythe who captured her role with such jaw-dropping substance of power and grace. The directors were undoubtedly striving for a humanism, and the cast were able to deliver. The only drawback of this approach was the decision to cast Nero (typically a soprano) as a tenor. While Marcus Ullmann gave a superb performance, it was often conspicuous that what he was singing was not written for a tenor voice, and became muddled in the orchestration.
The instrumentalists were of such caliber that it was often difficult to keep my eyes from drifting below the stage for long periods of time. Concertmaster Robert Mealy lead a small chamber ensemble, including two harpsichords and theorbos. The performers off-stage were able to sustain an uncanny sense of organic unity with the performers on-stage. And despite the small forces, they produced a beautifully undiluted and genuinely early-Baroque sound.
If there is any disappointment to have traded Graupner’s Antiochus and Stratonica for a scaled-down, intimate production of Poppea, it was only for the novelty of catching an opera that has been dormant for three centuries- not for having missed out on the spoils a more elaborate project. Let’s face it: when we want to see the spectacle of a stage packed with performers dressed in intricate costumes, and an over-crowded pit, we catch a Wagner show. Boston Early Music Festival’s L’incoronazione di Poppea was far from ordinary, and offered the audience with a chance to be far more intimate with the style, instruments, and performers in the more compact concert venue with the directors’ scaled-down approach.
Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.