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Scaling back, festival finds its voice in 'Poppea'

''The Coronation of Poppea,'' the centerpiece of this year's Boston Early Music Festival, requires a total company of only 45 cast and crew and a chamber-size instrumental ensemble. ''The Coronation of Poppea,'' the centerpiece of this year's Boston Early Music Festival, requires a total company of only 45 cast and crew and a chamber-size instrumental ensemble. (Photos By Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / May 31, 2009
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Like car companies, music festivals have been revising production goals in response to the recession. Even the well-established and highly esteemed Boston Early Music Festival, a biennial June event that attracts thousands of passionate fans from all corners of the world to a dazzling array of concerts, workshops, and symposia in venues around the city, has done some creative sash-tightening for its 2009 edition, running June 6-14.

Originally, the centerpiece of this year's BEMF was to have been the first performances since 1708 of the opera "Antiochus and Stratonica," by the German composer Christoph Graupner. BEMF artistic co-directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs and stage director Gilbert Blin spent nearly two years researching and preparing the production. A cast of international star singers was engaged and contracted to perform in this extravagant spectacle, which requires well over 100 performers, 150 costumes, and a large orchestra with 40 players.

Around last November, however, with the stock market in free fall and donations dropping, O'Dette, Stubbs, and Blin had to make a tough decision.

"It was becoming clear that our fund-raising situation was going to result in a large shortfall and we would not be able to do justice to this piece," O'Dette explained recently by phone from Rochester, N.Y., where he teaches at the Eastman School of Music. "But we already had a contracted cast with an unusual constellation of singers. How could we still use them, protect our reputation, and create the same kind of buzz?"

After many evenings of brainstorming they found a solution: "The Coronation of Poppea," by Claudio Monteverdi. "This was the opera that best fit the cast that was already hired," said O'Dette.

Even more importantly, "Poppea," first performed in Venice in 1642, and Monteverdi's most famous opera, requires a total company of only 45 cast and crew and a chamber-size instrumental ensemble. True, "Poppea" is hardly the sort of historical novelty that the BEMF has traditionally presented, for it is in the standard repertoire of many opera houses large and small all over the world, and is available in numerous recorded and filmed versions.

Given the abbreviated preparation time, it helped that O'Dette and Stubbs knew the opera well already, having done it many times before in Europe, and most recently in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2003. The musical edition they prepared for the Vancouver production is serving as the basis of the BEMF staging.

For director Blin, the sudden switch in repertoire was more daunting, since he had never staged "Poppea" before.

"Actually, I always thought I would do this wonderful work much later in life, maybe in my mid-60s," said Blin, wearing a bright orange jacket on a gray May morning. He was talking over eggs Benedict and orange juice at a Boston brasserie, just a few days after he had arrived from his home in Paris to start rehearsals. "Staging 'Poppea' requires wisdom, experience, and a certain relationship to humanity," he added in impeccable English, with only a pleasant trace of a French accent.

"The Coronation of Poppea" ("L'incoronazione di Poppea") is the last opera of Monteverdi (1567-1643), generally regarded as the most significant operatic composer of the 17th century. Appointed in 1613 as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark in wealthy and flourishing Venice, Monteverdi enjoyed enormous fame and prestige during his lifetime. Although his position required him to produce large quantities of church music, he also composed numerous works for the stage, including entertainments to be performed at court functions. In the 1630s, the first public opera houses opened in Venice, and it was for these that Monteverdi did what is considered his greatest operatic work, at the end of his career.

The innovative and majestic "Poppea" is the first known opera to treat a real historical subject. (Previously, operas had dealt exclusively with stories of gods, goddesses, and mythological creatures.) The libretto, by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, uses historical and literary sources to tell an episode from the life of the decadent Roman Emperor Nero. Set in Rome in 64 AD, the action takes place during a 12-hour period from dawn to dusk and focuses on Nero's adulterous involvement with the lady Poppea. Somewhat unexpectedly, the libretto celebrates the triumph of passion over morality. At the end, Nero's wronged wife, Octavia, is exiled and Poppea is crowned as his new queen, as the courtiers look on approvingly. The denouement of this frankly libidinous opera illustrates brilliantly the theme of this year's BEMF: "The Power of Love."

O'Dette calls "Poppea" a tragicomedy that is "one of the most powerful of all Baroque operas." He admits that it is "unsettling, because the bad guy gets the girl." The most virtuous characters are members of the lower classes, mainly servants, along with the poet Seneca, who dares to speak truth to the emperor. But Seneca (a real historical character) commits suicide in Act II, vacating the high moral ground to the decadent ruling class. The opera shows us the Rome of antiquity as seen by Venetians of the 17th century, at the height of the city's power, just before its decline. "It is a kind of cautionary tale for Venetians, to show them what happens when decadence sets in," O'Dette added.

Musically, "Poppea" focuses on the singers, and was originally intended to showcase the voices of several divas. The vocal writing shifts freely between recitative, arioso, and aria, and includes laments, madrigal-like sections, and songs for the comic characters influenced by popular music of the time. The orchestra consists of string quartet, two harpsichords, harp, and several Baroque stringed instruments.

Any company that stages "Poppea" confronts the thorny issue of the score, which exists in several different versions and is believed to include music by other composers besides Monteverdi. After extensive research, Stubbs and O'Dette cobbled together their own version, first staged in Vancouver in 2003. In a phone interview from his home in Seattle, Stubbs joked that the result "is a Frankenstein monster of my own creation."

Then there is the problem of whether to use a soprano (as was done in the original production in Venice) or a tenor in the role of Nero. Other male roles in the opera have often been taken by females. In the original production, the role of Ottone, Poppea's betrothed, was sung by an alto castrato. O'Dette and Stubbs have decided to use a tenor (Marcus Ullman) in the role of Nero in part because they had him already under contract. The only example of cross-gendered casting is the role of the old nurse, being sung here by tenor Zachary Wilder. The result, said Stubbs, is comic, and will be familiar to fans of Monty Python, where "old ladies are often played by tenors with quavery voices."

In his staging of "Poppea," Blin said he intends to stress the human aspect. "Opera is drama, and you need to believe in the relationships between people."

His intimate approach to the piece is well-suited to the small theater where it will be presented, the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Currently in the second year of a six-year appointment as artist-in-residence with the BEMF, Blin observed that the move to a new venue for the centerpiece opera may help to bring "new people to what we are doing. Since 'Poppea' has already been seen by many members of our traditional audience, it became even more important to take a fresh approach." Blin said he finds that the Boston audience is "good, sophisticated, but it likes to stay outside, at a kind of distance, without getting too involved."

"I want them to get more involved," he said. "We're going a little further than just a good night out."

A full plate of performances

"The Coronation of Poppea" will have six Boston performances, sung in Italian. There also will be three performances at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. Many other varied events are packed into the Boston Early Music Festival, scheduled June 6-14. Two additional Baroque operas will be performed in the recently inaugurated Chamber Opera Series: "Venus and Adonis" by John Blow (in English) and "Actéon" by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (in French). There will be the usual feast of concerts by leading early music ensembles and soloists from around the world, including the Flanders Recorder Quartet, the Ensemble Zefiro directed by Alfredo Bernardini, harpsichordist Pierre Hantai, and the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs.

HARLOW ROBINSON

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