Thursday, June 11, 2015

Poppea's old recipe perfectly baked at Boston Early Music Festival

David Hansen as Nerone and Amanda Forsythe as Poppea
It's impossible not to be moved by the strongly bonded text and vocal line inherent in Monteverdi's final opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea. On opening night, in Boston Early Music Festival's current production, it was conveyed with such vocal and dramatic nuance, and crowned with accomplished singing that heaves and sighs, grunts, tickles and blasts with the music, that proof of Monteverdi's magnificence - the master craftsman of the work amongst others - lives on.

In a production first performed at the 2009 festival and revived here as part of a trilogy of Monteverdi operas with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'Orfeo, director and set designer Gilbert Blin has stitched drama and style together with an interpretation that plonks the staging in the midst of its Monteverdian days.

Poppea premiered during the Venice Carnivale season in 1643 so it seems appropriate a theatrical party was prepared. There's a cornucopia of overripe philosophising, libidinous release and entertaining antics within the work which Blin has milked marvellously like no other Poppea I'm aware of.

David Hansen as Nerone
Lofty ideas are masked in parody and vice-versa in philosophical, political and moralistic battles between all classes of society and the gods themselves. The goddesses Fortuna and Virtù argue who has more power but Amore, the god of Love, intervenes to declare that he has the greatest power both in heaven and on earth.

As the white-clothed gods stepped down from their pedestals and wove through the story 'invisibly', as a metaphor for man's conscience, earthly events involving Poppea and Nerone's adulterous affair and her eventual coronation as Roman empress unfolded.

The opening night cast of soloists demonstrated mastery of intent in every corner of singing excellence. As a frisky, pesky-tempered and seemingly mentally unstable Nerone, countertenor David Hansen set a blazing standard with lyrical charm and volcanic strength in a vocal display of emotive breadth, range and musical wizardry, exerting power and ruthlessness far greater in voice than amusingly shown by his Nerone's at times feminine side, while gesticulating dismissively with no concern for his senate or the people.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe was radiant, peachy and scheming as Poppea. Not missing her turn in sexual dominance over Nerone, and dreaming of marriage to Nerone without preoccupations of becoming empress, Forsythe's pure tone and mellifluously flowing line would even suggest a harmony between her undeterred love and Love as the greater power.

Shannon Mercer as Ottavia
As Nerone's wife Ottavia, Shannon Mercer captured her irreconcilable and revengeful character with bounding power and vocal richness. Nathan Medley shined in the role of Ottone with a warm, angelic countertenor that wasn't quite to Poppea's taste as he tried to secure her love, but it perfectly dazzled Drusilla, coyly and brightly sung by Teresa Wakim.

As the philosopher Seneca, Christian Immler stood tall amongst both mortals and gods with a commanding and flexing, crusty baritone. Serving their masters Ottavia and Poppea, Jose Lemos as Nutrice and Laura Pudwell as Arnalta dished out hearty, characterful vocals and counterbalanced the upper class with their own uninvited counsel and comical craft.

The cast was filled out with fine performances from gods and goddesses doubling as mortals with Erica Schuller as La Fortuna and Damigella, Danielle Reutter-Harrah as La Virtù and Pallade and Nell Snaidas as Amore and Valletto.

Looking every bit the Roman soldier as Littore, Marco Bussi and his men, Zachary Wilder as Lucano and Aaron Sheehan as Liberto sang with fervour and practised vocal comradeship in the service of Nerone while freely expressing disagreement with his rule. John Taylor Ward spun Mercurio with notable surety.

D. Hansen, A. Forsythe & Nell Snaidas
During the performance I wondered whether the whimsical, melodramatic acting would tire and falter but over the three acts the results stood up as stiff as the painted scenic drops which framed the stage - testament to Blin's grasp in direction and a dedicated cast. Only a little love was lost on Nerone and Poppea's sometimes more mechanical than melting pairing.

Scenically, a colonnaded neo-classical Roman hall in fast diminishing perspective and painted trompe l'œil effect gave the performers a vibrancy as if they had dropped off the entablature above. Anna Watkins' richly brocaded and draped costumes of Roman skirts, tunics and gowns in sage, gold and mulberry revealed powder-soft beauty under Lenore Doxsee's glowing lighting.

And huddled together like friends around a campfire, musical directors Paul O'Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Robert Mealy as concertmaster and the BEMF Chamber Ensemble supplied lasting warmth and glow in a musical pact of strength, courtesy of the luxurious sound of period instruments.

Conceptually, this Poppea might have passed looking outdated, irrelevant and dry. In fact, it had the taste of an old favourite recipe freshly baked to perfection.

Production photos by Frank Siteman


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This place was very comfortable. Restrooms were decent. Coming here with my friends was an amazing experience. This is now one of my favorite venues San Francisco, because of its excellent food, perfect lighting, vibrant atmosphere and great ventilation.