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Poppea: Amoral But Entrancing

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Emily Marvosh as  Ottavia (Kathy Wittman photo)

A few days after experiencing Boston Baroque’s riveting production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea (on Friday evening at Jordan Hall), I am still reflecting on Poppea’s world of 64 A.D., one in whose important characters are ethically compromised, amoral, and, despite their beautiful voices, generally unpleasant. And I am still smiling, remembering the beauty of all of this opera’s voices, its fabulous costumes, and the astonishing countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, who played Nero (Nerone). With this opera about jealousy, villains, lust and betrayal, soprano Amanda Forsythe, the beloved belle of Boston, whose costume, posture, makeup, and singing sent shivers through one’s spine, played the sexually manipulative Poppea to perfection. Costanzi was, was great fun to watch—and to hear. His smile when he finally ended up, we presume, in romantic and sexual paradise with Poppea, was worth the price of the show. Here’s a fellow who makes that age-old promise to marry his girlfriend and crown her empress as soon as he dumps his wife (empress Ottavia, sung gorgeously by Emily Marvosh)—and follows through on his promise. Boston Baroque under the musical direction of Martin Pearlman presented an outstanding entertainment in this last of Monteverdi’s three extant operas. Everyone sang somewhere between very well and utterly fabulously. The small orchestra of strings and a continuo section with two harpsichordists (Martin Pearlman doubling as conductor and Peter Sykes on harpsichord) included the excellent players Michael Leopold, theorbo and guitar, and Motomi Igarashi on violine.

Venetians found Roman subject matter intensely fascinating, perhaps because they considered themselves the direct descendants of classical Roman civilization. Poppea is based on the true story of the Roman emperor Nero’s lust for a bewitching and conniving beauty, Poppea Sabina, and dramatizes events that occurred between 58 and 65 A.D. Its libretto, by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659), is culled from several sources, including the “Annals of Tacitus,” Seutonius’s “The Twelve Caesars, Book 6,” and Dio Cassius’s “Roman History.” Poppea (1643) premiered at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.

I borrow, with many thanks, much of Ellen Harris’s pithy plot summary from a Boston Early Music Festival Production four years ago (when Amanda Forsythe also starred as Poppea):

Ottone [Ryan Belongie, countertenor], Poppea’s long-time lover, returns after a long absence to find her having a steamy affair with Emperor Nerone (megastar countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo). Nerone has promised that as soon as he can rid himself of Empress Ottavia, (the sublime Emily Marvosh, contralto) he will marry Poppea and put her on the throne. The Emperor ignores the advice of his tutor Seneca [sung gorgeously by Kevin Langan], who has tried to dissuade him. Nerone, not one for subtlety or kindness, orders him to commit suicide. (Memorably, Seneca obeys). “Ottavia plots to have Ottone kill Poppea. Drusilla [Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, in beautiful voice], who loves Ottone, helps disguise him with her own long gown. Amore (that ever-charming cupid, Carrie Cheron) intervenes, the plot is foiled, and Drusilla is accused of the crime. When Ottavia is revealed as the perpetrator, Ottone asks to be exiled together with Drusilla, whom he realizes he loves. Ottavia is banished from the realm, and Poppea is crowned Empress of Rome.

Amanda Forsythe – Poppea
Anthony Roth Costanzo – Nero (Kathy Wittman photo)

The production opens as the marvelous soprano Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, portraying the goddess Fortuna (later as Lady Drusilla), struts in as a blonde in white with sunglasses and toting 6 shopping bags—irresistible and funny, even to those of us who have seen opera in modern dress countless times. Brian Giebler couldn’t help camping up Poppea’s cross-dressing nurse Arnalta, who realizes she soon will be ascending to be a great lady at court. Again we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but I enjoyed his voice and campy stage presence. 

Under director Tara Faircloth, the creative team successfully stressed the glory, power, glamour and sparkle of Rome.Kudos to the costume designer Neil Fortin and Andy Jm (sic) Thomas, the artistic (director) who led his crew in designing, painting, and highlighting hand painted gold motifs for each costume. The notes explain: “Due to the fact that everything was made from different fabrics—silks, velvets, chiffons and cotton–each costume presented its own unique set of issues. We hand-carved linoleum stamps, hand-cut acetate stencils, and hand-applied highlights and shadows to each costume to recreate the feeling of gold bullion embroidery.”

We are unquestionably living in a modern golden age of countertenors. Even so, Anthony Ross Costanzi stood out. I hereby announce that I will never miss a Boston performance of his again. His voice is remarkable, and he can really act, dominating every scene in which he appears. A quote from a recent interview give some inkling of his feelings about opera. “Generally opera is dream time. There’s a sort of vacuum where sound disappears and in between the notes, or when someone’s singing very softly, there’a kind of intensity to the air quality that I can’t find anywhere else. And that collective experience, that community as you engage with art is a very special thing that I don’t think should be taken for granted.” His voice is a tool to an end. “Above all, I am an actor.” This became abundantly clear in the quiet but exquisitely poignant duet between him and Poppea (Forsythe), “Pur ti miro” (I gaze at you) at the very alluring end. Poppea’s coronation, and all that led up to it, is quite a delicious, if nasty, tale. 

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The wonderful countertenor is Anthony Roth Costanzo.

    Comment by Dennis Milford — April 30, 2019 at 5:52 pm

  2. The entire production was exquisite. The beauty of the final duet always gets to me, but seeing it performed in such a beautiful fashion left me an emotional wreck, chin quivering and tears running down my face. These characters are actually pretty awful people in the story, but Monteverdi is so skilled at conveying emotions through his music, and the performers are so talented, you completely forget how ruthless everyone is and just root for Amor to win.

    Comment by Lonice Thomas — May 2, 2019 at 9:18 am

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