Every ill wind, as the saying goes, blows someone some good, and ironically enough our current economic downdraft has wafted an operatic masterpiece our way: the Boston Early Music Festival, which generally devotes itself to extravagant obscura (which once or twice has turned out to be deservedly obscure) was forced by financial concerns to cancel Christoph Graupner's Antiochus und Stratonica and substitute Monteverdi's smaller-scaled, better-known masterpiece, L'incoronazione di Poppea (with Gillian Keith and Marcus Ullmann, above left).
And with all due respect to Christoph Graupner (who knows, perhaps Antiochus and Stratonica is brilliant!) I have to say: lucky us. For Poppea has remained in the repertory for nearly four hundred years for a very good reason: it is simultaneously ravishing, heart-breaking, and startlingly profound, an amalgam of the warmest romance and the coldest irony that keeps us constantly on our emotional and intellectual toes. And while it's hardly unknown to the opera buff, it's rarely been seen in these parts - and, I'd hazard, rarely seen anywhere to better advantage. For not just the economic stars have aligned for this production: its setting, the Wimberley Theatre at the BCA, turns out to be a superbly intimate venue for chamber opera, and BEMF has assembled one of the best casts - in dramatic as well as vocal terms - in its history. In short, L'incoronazione di Poppea is good enough to make you feel that the downturn in your 401(k) may just have been worth it.
Still, marvelous as it is, this Poppea's not perfect. Specialists could disagree with some of the instrumental and vocal decisions made here (any performance must be "reconstructed" from two varying versions), but I've got no dog in any of those possible fights. There's a slight, but understandable, fudge to the tone of Gilbert Blin's direction, however, and there are vocal and/or dramatic gaps in the two leads (it's the supporting cast that pushes the opera well over the top). In the case of the direction, it must be said that the tone of this libretto (by Giovanni Francesco Busenello) is among the subtlest challenges in opera, and one that puts to shame the seemingly tinny ironies of most modernist and postmodernist works. The piece centers on the Roman emperor Nero and his consort Poppea, whom he eventually crowns as empress, after disposing of his understandably-scheming queen Ottavia (banishment), the protesting philosopher Seneca (death), and Poppea's own husband Ottone (again banishment, but this time with the loyal Drusilla by his side, whom he slowly learns to deserve). But Poppea's day in the sun didn't last long: once pregnant, she was kicked to death by her unstable hubby. So "The Triumph of Love" this ain't.
Oh, but it is. Perhaps only Vladimir Nabokov has pulled off the kind of trick that Monteverdi and Busenello manage with L'incoronazione di Poppea: an ode to love which simultaneously seduces and sobers - even horrifies. The opera begins with a standard-issue quarrel among the gods (here Virtue, Fortune, and Love) over who has the most power over life on Earth. Love claims precedence, of course, and then sets about proving her dominion via the elevation of the lovely Poppea against all arguments of reason, political justice or morality. But hey, that's amore! That Poppea is wedding a budding sociopath, and that her ascension will wreak havoc on the state (Seneca prepares for his "suicide," at right), are but trifles before the power of sexual attraction.
What proves most haunting about Poppea, however, is that throughout this ongoing moral and political travesty Monteverdi manages to keep some level of sympathy with everyone (even Nero). Because all the characters are at some level a victim of emotional or political forces beyond their control. (Even Poppea is the plaything of her own beauty.) But this perspective requires, at bottom, a certain chill in a production's conception of Love - the godlet can't be merely some mischievous putti, but requires at least the alien distance of Shakespeare's Ariel, and perhaps even the terrifying calm of Apollo while flaying Marsyas. Director Blin, however, keeps soprano Nell Snaidas's Amore well within a certain winking cuteness, which is fine at first but begins to feel inadequate to the eventual size of the opera's moral debate. To be fair, the director does work Virtue and Fortune back into the action at appropriate moments, but then he seems to drop the ball again with Nero and Poppea, whose relationship isn't nearly glamorously twisted enough - although one could argue that the central gap here is simply Marcus Ullmann's Nero. Ullmann was re-purposed from the cast of Antiochus und Stratonica, and he's none too comfortable with the upper vocal reaches of his new role (which was originally written for a soprano), and perhaps that's hampering him dramatically. But at the same time he is simply neither a complex nor powerful enough presence to anchor the opera - which leads to an implicit presentation of Poppea (Gillian Keith) as a gold-digger, another slight error in interpretation. But if Keith doesn't quite limn the fearful uncertainty of her political position, she nonetheless sings the role ravishingly, with a honeyed soprano that is simultaneously light, rich, and luminously subtle.
And the vocal riches just keep on coming, generally combined with pitch-perfect dramatic characterizations. Stephanie Houtzeel all but steals the show as the spurned Ottavia, with a vocal power and a tragic hauteur that would have filled a much larger house. She was nearly matched in stature, however, by Christian Immler's Seneca - Immler deployed his deeply vibrant voice to poignant effect, while holding back dramatically from any overt melodrama; thus his preparation for his suicidal bath was probably the most heart-rending scene on a local stage in recent memory.
The list of wonderful performances in this production is long, however. Amanda Forsythe made an emotionally compelling and vocally radiant Drusilla, while as her eventual mate Ottone, Holger Falk negotiated many an emotional twist without missing a beat, all while sporting an agile and rich baritone (although he too was occasionally stretched in his upper register). Another scene-stealer was Laura Pudwell as Poppea's nurse (above) - an earthy busybody straight out of Shakespeare. I was also taken with Deborah Rentz-Moore's Virtue, Ross Hauck's Lucano, and Jesse Blumberg's Mercurio. And all received truly dazzling accompaniment from the period orchestra, which featured particularly sparkling work from Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs on Baroque guitar and theorbo (those giraffe-like period banjos), Luca Guglielmi and Jörg Jacobi on harpsichord, and Maxine Eilander on Baroque harp. It was hard not to feel as the curtain fell (to rapturous applause), that L'incoronazione di Poppea would prove the cultural event of the summer, and perhaps the Boston Early Music Festival's crowning achievement.