The Coronation of Poppea

Music of the Baroque

at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, March 27; repeats at United Church of Hyde Park April 2 and at Saint Pauls Church April 4

Claudio Monteverdi didn’t invent opera any more than Paul invented Christianity, but like the apostle he shaped an infant movement, setting it on a path it might not have taken without his influence.

Opera had many antecedents, among them medieval mystery plays and Renaissance intermedi (musico-dramatic interludes between acts of plays) and masques. Jacopo Peri’s Euridice of 1600 is celebrated as the first surviving opera, the product of a determination to re-create the drama of ancient Greece. A Florentine group, the Camerata, decided that Greek plays must have been sung–which actually makes a certain amount of sense, considering the form’s outdoor amphitheaters. As the clergy and street vendors have known for centuries, the sung or chanted word carries far better than the spoken word and is much easier on the voice than shouting. The words, in this view, were of primary importance; they were to be set meaningfully and sung intelligibly. The members of the Camerata, including Peri, were at particular pains to avoid the inevitable distortions of polyphony, which stretched words out and blended voices in such a way as to lose clarity of text.

The earliest operas reflected not only the art form’s supposed Attic roots but the Renaissance fascination with mythology: they were largely concerned with the doings of ancient heroes and Olympian immortals and frequently featured a deus ex machina. Different composers used the same libretti–and pretty lame libretti they seem today, even by operatic standards, often so silly that they make La sonnambula look Wagnerian by comparison. Monteverdi, that master madrigalist and grand polyphonist, used Rinuccini’s libretto for Euridice for his own La favola d’Orfeo of 1607 but set it to music that worked far better, with a much grander orchestra. By 1642, when his last work for the stage and greatest masterpiece L’incoronazione di Poppea was first produced, operas were being written for the public and not just academics and aristocrats. Poppea has much more of the flavor of what we think of as opera today, including a coherent story line (Monteverdi rearranged Busenello’s libretto) and expressive music that calls for outstanding singers. There are still allegorical characters taking up space and assorted deities saving the day, but the libretto is based on actual historical figures.

And an unpleasant lot they were, too. Poppea was the second of Nero’s three wives. He was not a good husband: the legend of Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned may be apocryphal, but it pales by comparison with many of the atrocities he actually committed–colluding with his mother in the murder of his stepfather, Claudius, and then having his mother killed, for starters. His first wife was Octavia, his adopted sister whom he married young by family arrangement. Nero got bored with her fairly quickly (he divorced and then executed her) and later took a colorful variety of bedmates–he “married” a young eunuch done up in full bridal regalia and later a freedman, this time wearing the bridal veil himself; he and his mother were also said to be lovers until he had her murdered. Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars claims Nero doted on Poppea, a notable sexual athlete with a knack for scheming. But in evident proof of the contention that you always hurt the one you love, he kicked her to death while she was suffering through a difficult pregnancy. She had made the mistake of complaining when he came home late from the racetrack. In fact Nero had very little to recommend him: Suetonius describes him as possessing a “pustular and malodorous” body, with a big belly atop skinny legs.

None of the characters in the opera are very attractive, though Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, has been made a great deal more noble than he was in real life. Poppea’s husband has been expunged, but she’s been provided with an ex-lover, Ottone, who schemes with the Empress Octavia to murder Poppea. Ottone convinces Drusilla, who’s in love with him, to lend him her clothes as a disguise for the assassination, but it’s foiled by the God of Love. Ottone is banished (with Drusilla as a consolation prize), Octavia is exiled, and Poppea gets her crown: injustice triumphs.

This story is set to music that’s by turn sexy, funny, profound, and majestic. Unfortunately Monteverdi’s original score didn’t survive; all we have is a rehearsal copy, with a small ensemble’s parts instead of the full orchestration. This vacuum has left early-music mavens free to improvise–and to fight over the most appropriate instruments and cuts. Since the original contains three and a half hours of music, some of it perfectly irrelevant to the story, what to cut is no small concern. Alas, Music of the Baroque’s conductor, Thomas Wikman, elected to perform the piece virtually untrimmed, making the concert something of an endurance contest. The audience dwindled with each intermission, but those who departed early missed a sublime ending.

The cast was very large and mostly very good. Emily Magee as Poppea revealed a big, rich, seamless voice. When she relaxed, most notably in her scene with Ottone, she conveyed the triumphant, calculated sexuality the future empress requires–that if-you-got-it-flaunt-it quality of the successful courtesan. But too often she remained polite and slightly nervous, a bit like the Countess awaiting the arrival of Susannah in Le nozze di Figaro. She was well partnered by Gloria Banditelli as Nero. Nero, like several other parts, was written for a castrato; castrati being in short supply these days, mezzo-sopranos or countertenors have been cast in the roles or they’ve been rewritten for tenors and baritones. The mezzo voice is probably the happiest choice when a singer can be found who’s believable as a man. Banditelli has a dark, androgynous vocal quality and a fine range. Her Nero was more spoiled brat than monstrous tyrant, but she made the switch from ardent lover to irascible ruler convincingly. The final duet between Poppea and Nero was absolutely devastating in its sensuality and ardor.

Mezzo-soprano Donna Bruno was properly imperial and reasonably sympathetic as the cast-aside Octavia; she has a fine voice and command of the baroque style. MOB stalwart Patrice Michaels Bedi sang well as the foolish Drusilla, consistently connecting with the audience. Bass Kevin Langan was suitably sonorous as Seneca, and tenor William Watson was cast amusingly against type in the skirt role of Arnalta, Poppea’s old nurse. (But if the pants-role page could wear trousers, couldn’t Watson have worn a tasteful kilt instead of standard evening dress?) Sopranos Amy Cochrane and Maureen Sorensson, in two of the smallest roles, were utterly charming in a scene that had nothing whatever to do with the story. The small orchestra played superbly under Wikman’s direction; of special note is David Schrader’s yeomanlike service on the harpsichord. This was a remarkable musical evening.

The worst thing about concert performances of operas–aside from love duets in which the principals have to stand on either side of the conductor–is the penchant many singers have for staring at their music as if their very souls depended on it. Banditelli was a particularly egregious offender. It’s hard to become fully involved in a performance where the musicians are glued to the score, and unfortunately a lot of these were. Equally distracting, from a dramatic point of view, was the way most of the performers counted measures until their next entrances instead of acting while they were waiting their turns to sing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Emily Magee.