Strong singing of large cast enlivens BEMF’s “Poppea”

June 10, 2015 at 4:11 pm

By David Wright

David Hansen, Amanda Forsythe, and Nell Snaidas (foreground) in Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Monteverdi’€™s”L€’incoronazione di Poppea.” Photo: Frank Siteman

If you thought Mozart’s Così fan tutte was the first opera about a cynical bet on human behavior, guess again. Claudio Monteverdi got there a century and a half earlier, as the Boston Early Music Festival’s production of L’incoronazione di Poppea Tuesday at the Boston University Theatre made clear.

Or made sort of clear. On the one hand, this was a production that said “the triumph of love” like it was a bad thing. The opera began with the mischievous boy-god Cupid betting the goddesses Fortune and Virtue that he had more influence on humans than they did.

By the opera’s final curtain, Cupid had won the bet handily: Two dubious characters, the emperor Nerone (Nero) and his mistress Poppea, were sitting on the throne, while nearly all the virtuous ones were dead or in exile.

On the other hand, Monteverdi’s score, expertly realized by cast and instrumentalists, reveled in sensuous sound and ornament, and librettist Giovanni Francesco Busanello larded the drama freely with stock comic characters and scenes ranging from a satirical soldiers’ duet to young lovers at teasing play to not one but two comical nurses.

Evidently entertainment, not classical unity, was uppermost in the mind of Monteverdi’s original audience in Venice during carnival 1643. Tuesday’s audience seemed to take the goings-on in that spirit, skimming over the plot’s Così-like ambiguities to applaud spectacular or expressive singing and laugh heartily at moments of lowbrow humor.

As written, the character of Poppea is two-dimensional, the two dimensions being lust and ambition. Soprano Amanda Forsythe did what she could with it dramatically, and sang with rich tone and agility in ornate passages. She was made up to look not only beautiful and desirable, but also just a touch hollow-eyed and haggard, suggesting the grasping spirit behind the enticing exterior.

Poppea’s role is overmatched in the score by her lover Nerone, who is called upon often to rocket suddenly into the coloratura stratosphere, which countertenor David Hansen did with extraordinary power and accuracy on Tuesday.

One couldn’t tell if Hansen’s physical contortions were necessary to produce those amazing sounds or if they were part of his characterization of an emperor unhinged by lust and power, glowering and lurching around the stage like a demented cult leader.

In any case, no one in the cast could match him for vocal prowess, although tenor Zachary Wilder gave him quite a run as the emperor’s friend Lucano in the lightning-fast melismas of their duet “Di quel viso ridente” in Act II.  And Forsythe and Hansen blended their sounds superbly in the opera’s famous final duet, “Pur ti miro.”

The role of Ottavia, Nerone’s spurned empress, gave soprano Shannon Mercer plenty of emotional range to work with— from rage at her husband’s infidelity to impatience with her co-conspirator in plotting the murder of Poppea to desolation at her eventual banishment from Rome. Mercer delivered on all of it with force and dignity.

Nathan Medley played the hapless co-conspirator Ottone–betrayed by Poppea but still in love with her—a little crouched over and wary-eyed, as if wondering what disaster would hit him next, and with a hollow-sounding countertenor to match.

His character was barely able to respond to the affections of the young lady-in-waiting Drusilla, for whom the elimination of Poppea would clear her way to Ottone’s heart. Soprano Teresa Wakim sang prettily in the role. The humorous potential of their interaction, and of Ottone dressing in Drusilla’s clothes to get past Poppea’s guard, went mostly unrealized on Tuesday, although Nerone’s look of befuddlement later on as each tried to confess in order to save the other was a comic highlight.

Bass Christian Immler was an impressive physical and vocal presence as the philosopher Seneca, the voice of high-mindedness and reason amidst all this Cupid-inspired disorder. Although entertained by the chaos, the Boston audience seemed to really fall for this super-prof, and greeted Immler with a swell of well-earned applause at the curtain call.

All these characters are of course merely the playthings of the gods, and stage director Gilbert Blin emphasized the point by taking the latter literally off their pedestals and weaving them in pantomime through the dramatic action, like white-clad puppeteers.

Erica Schuller and Danielle Reutter-Harrah brought to the roles of Fortune and Virtue (respectively) beauty, bearing, and soprano voices fit for goddesses. While countertenor John Taylor Ward had only one singing scene as Mercury, his remarkably tall, graceful presence was such an adornment to the stage that Blin took every opportunity to bring him back.

Of course, the god-in-chief of this story, and especially of this production, was the wily Cupid, sung by mezzo-soprano Nell Snaidas with no end of cheek and charm, if not the biggest voice in the show.

Double-casting Snaidas as the impudent young page Valletto, sassing his elders from the dignified Seneca to the earthy old nurse Nutrice, had a certain dramatic logic to it: essentially the same character was tweaking Virtue both on Mount Olympus and in the imperial court.

However, one felt that having Cupid snatch the crown off Poppea’s head just moments after the climactic incoronazione and clap it on his own head was an anachronism—cute and ironic for a 21st-century audience but unthinkable for a 17th-century one, even in republican Venice.

Soprano Schuller’s double-casting was better disguised; only a sharp-eyed program reader would have recognized the goddess Fortune as the doe-eyed handmaid Damigella, demonstrating in a charming duet her ability to raise young Valletto’s temperature.

As the nurses Nutrice and Arnalta, countertenor José Lemos and contralto Laura Pudwell got plenty of laughs, Lemos for a couple of scenes of giving randy advice to the empress and being tormented by Valletto (and for his visible five o’clock shadow, apparently an in-joke about a man singing a female part).

The role of Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse, is far more central to the action, and grows in stature to end in a Falstaffian “survivor” aria just before the final coronation scene. Pudwell sang her part mostly in a low, straight tone befitting her lower social status, which could become a kind of speech-singing in dramatic moments, or a hypnotic cooing sound as she sang Poppea to sleep. Her effective vocal style and robust embodiment of the character won her high marks from the audience.

Tenors Wilder and Aaron Sheehan and baritone Marco Bussi were effective in smaller roles, and joined forces beautifully as (among other things) a chorus of Seneca’s followers disconsolate at his imminent death and consuls and tribunes attending Poppea’s coronation.

Musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs put on a sonically satisfying production, finely coordinating singers and players through Monteverdi’s imaginative text-setting and special effects. The twelve-member Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, led by the full, silvery violin sound of concertmaster Robert Mealy, put a resonant floor under the action and discreetly supported the singers.

Lenore Doxsee’s discreet lighting changes (nothing too sudden or modern) preserved the illusion of attending a Baroque theater, as did the receding columns of Gilbert Blin’s single set, made of flat panels with only one moving part, a curtain going up and down to mark exterior and interior scenes.

The costumes by Anna Watkins—ancient Roman for the men and a mix of Roman and Renaissance for the women—suited the characters and enhanced the action.

L’incoronazione di Poppea will be repeated at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.  bemf.org; 617-661-1812.

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