L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) on Saturday, February 8th at the Cutler Majestic Theater (repeating performances on February 9, 10, and 11), was in many ways a daring choice for the New England Conservatory Opera Studies department. In contrast to many traditional opera scenarios featuring star-crossed lovers, the power-crazed yet foppish Nero and his seductive, wily mistress Poppea are anti-heroes who hardly command our sympathy when their triumph over a queen’s constancy and a sage’s wise counsel is celebrated in an apparent apotheosis of sensual love. (We are not told that only three years later Nero kicked Poppea to death in a fit of anger.)
Poppea is Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, first performed in Venice in January 1643 when the composer was in failing health (he died in November of the same year). The printed edition of the libretto published in 1656 clearly names as author Giovanni Francesco Busenello, a prominent Venetian lawyer and poet and member of the Accademia degli Incogniti (Academy of the Unknowns). Busenello based his libretto largely on the historical account by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus, who gives full details on the characters of Nero and Poppea as well as on the life and death of the philosopher Seneca. A libretto based on historical narrative rather than mythological allegory was a novelty in seventeenth-century opera. This particular story, it turns out, reflects concerns current in the declining republic of Venice that were also topics of debate at meetings of the Incogniti: the nature of love, the primacy of reason over passion, the falsity of appearances, the dangers of female power, and the virtues of work and constancy.
While Busenello’s authorship of the Poppea libretto is undisputed, none of its surviving early printed or manuscript copies mentions a composer. Nor is he named in the two seventeenth-century manuscript scores, both copied some years after Monteverdi’s death. In fact, Monteverdi’s authorship of some parts of the opera has long been questioned. In the introduction to his 1989 performing edition of Poppea, Alan Curtis concludes that the role of Poppea’s husband Ottone was rewritten by a younger composer, who also composed the final duet by Nero and Poppea, and most likely the duet in the Prologue and the flirtation scene between the two young servants.
NEC’s production was based on the edition realized by Raymond Leppard and published by G. Schirmer in the 1960s, which collapses the scenario into a prologue followed by two acts rather than the original three. More problematic is the tessitura of certain vocal parts. Gender-bending in 17th-century Venetian opera can present challenges to modern audiences and performers. Male parts were often taken by falsettists or castratos; lower-class, comic female roles, on the other hand, were apt to be sung by men. The role of Ottone was probably written for a male alto; transposed down an octave to a baritone range, his character takes on greater weight and seriousness, but loses something of its pathetic quality. Saturday’s Ottone, Vincent Turregano, started off with a disappointingly limited emotional range, but gained considerably in expressive power as the evening went on, particularly in partnership with Rebekah Holland’s fine Drusilla. Nerone, originally a soprano castrato part, was sung by tenor James Dornier. More fine singing, although lacking the hysterical edge of shrillness inherent in an “unnatural” soprano voice, a suitable match for Nero’s outrageous behavior. As Poppea’s nurse and confidante, Arnalta, alto Jessica Harika had difficulty projecting the low notes of her beautiful lullaby that precedes the attempt on Poppea’s life, but later rose to the occasion in an ironic warning against flattery at court. Certainly the most moving “set” pieces were those of the rejected empress, Ottavia, sung on Saturday by mezzo Sadie Gregg in tones alternating between resignation and rage. Yujin Kim was a stellar Poppea, her light, clear soprano projecting both seductiveness and steely intrigue as she wended her way to power. And as Seneca, John Quinn’s resonant bass provided a stentorian corrective to the corrupt intrigues about him.
The musical language of Monteverdi’s Poppea fluctuates unpredictably between fluid arioso and more measured song-like melody, often interspersed with dance-like interludes in triple time. Conductor Joseph Mechavich and members of the NEC Philharmonia, with continuo supplied by Douglas Freundlich, lute, Salome McNutt, guitar, Daniel Wyneken, harpsichord, and Zhou Yi, cello, provided expert and spirited support to the singers. Steven Goldstein’s direction was straightforward yet deft. The Prologue, featuring a dispute between Love, Virtue, and Fortune, opened us to the ironies of the tale: Virtue in sober (1950s) business dress and carrying a briefcase, Love a pigtailed scamp wielding a bow, and Fortune resplendent in gold. The single stage set by Richard Wadsworth Chambers had a decidedly mid-20th century corporate look to it, centering on a huge desk that, incongruously enough, served as a bed in the opening love scene. Movable black trellises outlined the background as scenes shifted from Poppea’s house to Seneca’s garden to the city of Rome. This was a stylish production that did not attempt a historical reconstruction. I was nevertheless surprised at the lack of program notes apart from the usual performer biographies. Surely someone from NEC’s excellent Music History Department could have provided informative notes on Monteverdi’s most controversial opera.