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OPERA REVIEW

Monteverdi's Romans, speaking to the present

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Dress rehearsal footage from the Boston Early Music Festival's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion. (Video by Kathy Wittman/Courtesy of BEMF)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 9, 2009
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Stravinsky kept a portrait of Monteverdi next to his piano, as if the two composers were keeping tabs on one another across three centuries. "I feel very close to him," the modern master once explained, adding that "perhaps he is the first great musician to whom we can feel close."

Stravinsky was onto something; Monteverdi was both opera's historic trailblazer and the creator of enduring works that have an uncanny ability to resonate with contemporary audiences. The biennial Boston Early Music Festival, currently in full swing at venues around the city, has as its centerpiece a delightful new production of the composer's late masterpiece "L'incoronazione di Poppea" ("The Coronation of Poppea"), which opened on Saturday night at the Calderwood Pavilion.

It is an opera that was first performed in 1643 and is based on historical events from the first century. Director Gilbert Blin and the creative team have labored assiduously to summon the look, the sound, and the spirit of Monteverdi's day, from the hand gestures down to the decorative flourishes on the footwear. And yet the frame here is never mistaken for the picture itself. The deep poignancy and human emotion at the heart of Monteverdi's strangely amoral tale is allowed to speak without mediation. As Stravinsky understood, none is required.

"Poppea" is of course a well-known, frequently staged work and that makes it something of a departure for BEMF, which has prided itself on unearthing musical gems from the distant past and presenting their first modern performances. Christoph Graupner's elaborate "Antiochus und Stratonica" was to be this year's new discovery but when the recession hit, the festival was forced to switch tacks. In staging "Poppea" the romance of terra incognita is lost, but the upside is that the festival gets to apply its distinctive approach to a work with a proven track record.

Giovanni Francesco Busenello's libretto, a tale of love and power politics, centers on the explosive affair between the Roman Emperor Nero (here Nerone) and Poppea, the noble lady who deftly manipulates everyone around her and is eventually crowned as empress. Many are swept up in the couple's wake, including Poppea's discarded husband, Ottone, consumed variously by sadness, longing, and rage; the spurned empress Ottavia, who curses her plight and tries to eliminate her rival; and the stoic philosopher Seneca, who is sentenced to death after bravely warning Nerone against succumbing to petty lust. Throughout the opera, Monteverdi's score reflects the inner turmoil of his characters with remarkable sensitivity, like some kind of seismograph of the soul. It is surely the depth and precision of his empathy that makes this work feel so resonant across the centuries.

BEMF's new production is an elegantly staged affair that breathes with the music. The lavish costumes are by Anna Watkins and the unobtrusive period set is designed by Blin. The acoustics of the Calderwood Pavilion are very dry but this production benefits greatly from its intimate proportions. The front row of seats has been removed and the musicians sit as if gathered around a long banquet table. With leadership from musical directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O'Dette as well as concertmaster Robert Mealy, the playing on Saturday night was lithe and highly responsive, with the delicacy and transparency of chamber music.

Gillian Keith heads the relatively young cast and she made an appealing Poppea, kittenish and conniving as needed, singing with a pure tone and an agile technique. The high-lying role of Nerone was sung by tenor Marcus Ullmann, who held his own but at times sounded strained or murky in his upper range and never fully projected his character's fearsome political power. Stephanie Houtzeel was a real standout with her deeply felt portrayal of the shattered empress Ottavia, singing this complex role with musical intelligence and white-hot dramatic intensity.

Holger Falk made a sympathetic and sweet-toned Ottone, and Christian Immler brought a rich voice and dignified bearing to the role of Seneca. Amanda Forsythe was an animated Drusilla, who loves Ottone and tries to protect him from Nerone's wrath. A slew of more peripheral characters, gods and servants of various stripes, hover around the events and at times leaven the proceedings with cynical wit and earthy comic relief. Laura Pudwell had the audience laughing out loud with her saucy portrayal of Arnalta the nurse. Ross Hauck, Nell Snaidas, Erica Schuller, Deborah Rentz-Moore, Aaron Sheehan, and Zachary Wilder were among the singers who took up the smaller roles with skill and grace. The production runs locally through June 14 and then picks up again with three additional performances at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

MONTEVERDI'S L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA Boston Early Music Festival

At: Calderwood Pavilion,

Saturday night through June 14

At: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington,

June 19-21

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