'Poppea' with a community vibe

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 20, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

CAMBRIDGE - OperaHub’s scrappy production of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea’’ opened only a week after the Boston Early Music Festival mounted the same opera. But where BEMF had a period-accurate orchestra, OperaHub opted for a synthesized reduction, and in place of elaborate Renaissance costumes were ’80s-MTV versions of Roman togs.

What remained was Monteverdi’s cheerfully cynical masterpiece, in which error compounds, immorality triumphs, and the ending is, defiantly, still happy.

The electronic arrangement of the score by OperaHub cofounder Jordan Rodu turned the Prologue argument between Virtue, Fortune, and Love into a manipulation of recorded voices - the allegorical gods sounding like “Doctor Who’’ aliens - as a trio of dancers added a layer of modern-dance choreography by Erin Huelskamp. It didn’t work dramatically, but the musical approach could have used more of that daring. Most of the accompaniment was more tame, with Julia Scott Carey’s electronic keyboard both oddly lacking in timbral variety and too sparse for the singers to luxuriate in.

Rodu also directed, dropping in a few contemporary touches (emperor Nerone and mistress Poppea duetting via Blue-tooth headsets), pressing the audience into service to hail Poppea’s coronation.

Singing and acting ran the gamut. As Nerone’s adviser Seneca, Adrian Packel’s Polonius-like platitudinous stiffness contrasted with his ringing baritone. Nina Moe was solid as Nerone’s estranged empress Ottavia, simultaneously self-pitying and manipulative.

Crossing gender to play Nerone, Amanda Keil’s over-the-top voguing was probably appropriate to the historic Nero, constantly posing for his own action figure; Kathryn McKellar’s Poppea had the right narcissistic self-objectification. But this power couple lacked vocal authority, both singers showing inconsistent breath support; the necessary bloom for Monteverdi’s ravishing duets never materialized.

The opera’s other pair fared best. Countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf sang Ottone, Poppea’s cuckolded husband, with fluid, fluent musical style, ably matched by Kathy Gerlach’s rich, consistent soprano as his rekindled flame Drusilla. Both also were adroit actors, convincing the audience of a devotion that the opera leaves sketchy - as Ottone deflected Drusilla’s suspicion at his sudden infatuation, Pagenkopf allowed the character a flash of self-congratulatory relish, his quick thinking maintaining the plot’s implausible momentum.

OperaHub’s “Poppea’’ was at its best in such moments. Surrendering to the performance’s community vibe reawakened Monteverdi’s real achievement, initiating the audience into the art form’s essentially blasphemous conspiracy.


At: Cambridge Family YMCA Theater, Thursday (repeats today and tomorrow)

Latest Entertainment Twitters

Get breaking entertainment news, gossip, and the latest from Boston Globe critics and A&E staff.