Monteverdi Trilogy Heads to the Berkshires

Early Music Festival Travels to Great Barrington

By: - Jun 18, 2015

“Invention and Discovery
Boston Early Music Festival
June 7 to 14, various venues, Boston
“The Monteverdi Trilogy”
“Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” (Ulysses’ Return to his Homeland), June 7, 10 & 12, Boston University Theatre“L’Incornonazione di Poppea” (The Coronation of Poppea), June 9 & 14, Boston University Theatre
“Orfeo” (Orpheus), June 13, Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory with the Dark Horse ConsortMonteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers of 1610)
June 11, Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory
BEMF in the Berkshire
“Vespers of 1610,” June 20
“Orfeo,” June 21
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington
Production team:
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors
Rober Mealy, concertmaster, BEMF Chamber Ensemble
Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer
Anna Watkins, costume designer
Lenore Doxsee, lighting designer
Kathleen Fay, executive producer
Colin Balzer, tenor (Ulisse); Mary-Ellen Nesi, mezzo-soprano (Penelope); Zachary Wilder, tenor (Telemaco); Laura Pudwell, mezzo-soprano (Ericlea); Patrick Kilbride, tenor (Iro); Aaron Sheehan, tenor (Eurimaco); Danielle Reutter-Harrah, mezzo-soprano (Melanto); Christian Immler, baritone (Antinoo); José Lemos, countertenor (Pisandro); Charles Blandy, tenor (Anfinomo)
Amanda Forsythe, soprano (Poppea); David Hansen, countertenor (Nerone); Shannon Mercer, soprano (Ottavia); Christian Immler, baritone (Seneca); Nathan Medley, counter-tenor (Ottone); Teresa Wakim, soprano (Drusilla); Laura Pudwell, mezzo-soprano (Arnalta); Jose Lemos, countertenor (Nutrice); Zachary Wilder, tenor (Lucano)
“Orfeo”Aaron Sheehan, tenor (Orfeo); Mireille Asselin, soprano (Euridice); Shannon Mercer, soprano (Messaggiera); Teresa Wakim, soprano (Proserpina); Marco Bussi, baritone (Plutone); Matthew Brooke, bass (Caronte); Jason McStoots, tenor (Apollo)
Note: Each of the operas has additional cast members playing smaller roles: gods and goddesses, representations of the virtues and shepherds and shepherdesses. The BEMF’s Monteverdi Trilogy functioned as a repertory company. A singer with a starring role one night, might have a minor one in the next; for instance, Amanda Forsythe sang the title role in “Poppea” but only the small role of Giunone in “Ulisse.” In addition to those cited above, most of whom sang multiple roles, soprano Nell Snaidas and baritone John Taylor Ward made valuable contributions. A special shout-out to countertenor Reginald Mobley who substituted for an indisposed singer in the Vespers on short notice.

Whenever I get to Venice for its Biennale of contemporary art – I’ve missed more than a few over the years - I try my best to visit the Chiesa dei Frari, which houses some of the greatest art in Venice - paintings by Titian and Giovanni Bellini, and a late Gothicizing sculpture by Donatello of St. John the Baptist. It also houses the tomb of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), whose three surviving operas and greatest work of sacred music just intoxicated Boston audiences for a long eight-day week. Every time I visit, there is a single red rose resting on the slab in the side altar where he lies. For all the shameless buying and selling that has gone on in that watery republic for the past thousand years, Venice remembers and honors its artists, and nearly 300 years into its decline, still attracts them from all over the world.

But before we get to Monteverdi, I need to point out that the biennial Boston Early Music Festival is more than this year’s headliner. The official programs featured music from all over the western world, including its colonies – music by the Bachs, Handel, Rameau and, of course, Vivaldi were well-represented, along with those known only to experts. In addition to the Monterverdiana, I managed to squeeze in two other concerts. (OK, I was a slacker - I met a critic from Miami who was hitting four or five concerts a day.) I heard Catalan master of the viol Jordi Savall and a small contingent from his adventurous Hespèrion XXI, joined by the Mexican folklore quartet Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, play music from “The New World” that showed cross-cultural influences. And I went to an O’Dette/Stubbs extravaganza, “Three, Four and Twenty Lutes,” which featured a lute orchestra, playing 16th and 17th century music. Their encore was an American rag arranged for 20 lutes. It sounded remarkably like a honky-tonk piano.

But other than playing hooky twice, I focused on the music of the man at the center of this year’s festival, the composer who basically created opera as the genre we know it today. “Orfeo” (1607), with a libretto by Alessandro Striggio based on Greek mythology, is often spoken of as the first great opera - it is definitely the first to have entered the repertory - but in a program note, musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly argues that it’s not an opera at all, that when it was written, a radical attempt to recreate Greek drama set to music, the idea of “opera” didn’t yet exist.

But within 35 years, that idea flourished, at least in Venice. Monteverdi’s last two works in the genre, “Ulisse” (1640), to a text by Giacomo Badoardo based on Homer, and “Poppea” (1643), to a text by Giovanni Francesco Busenello drawn from history, are fully mature “operas” in a way we immediately recognize. “Orfeo,” which was composed for connoisseurs at the court in Mantova, is “una favola in musica,” a story told through music, and the story it tells is simple and direct: love found, lost, regained, lost again and finally transcended, no subplots, no digressions – except, of course, that ill-fated trip to Hades.

By the time of “Ulisse” and “Poppea,” which were written for public theaters, the genre had matured and grown complex with parallel love stories, political intrigue, low humor supplied by servants, sometimes in drag, and a range of emotions that mirrors those of real life. The only thing that separates them, “Poppea” particularly, from, say, “Tosca,” is their prologues with representations of abstract concepts – virtue, fortune, love, time - and the occasional appearance of various gods with an interest in the proceedings. Even though he was a modern man looking to the future, creating the future, Monteverdi also kept one eye cocked toward the past: he saw his works as not mere entertainments, although they were given during carnival season, but as moral instruction.

So, where to begin? Let’s start at the end and work our way back to the beginning, the order in which I happened to see the trilogy, with the “Vespers” falling exactly where it should in the reverse chronology.

“L’incoronazione di Poppea” is a true astonishment. Those who see it for the first time are shocked by its modernity, as if human nature has changed all that much since 1643 – or even 1643 BCE. Of course, what they mean by “modern” is that its characters exhibit cynicism, venality, vanity, corruption, ruthlessness, disloyalty and unfathomable cruelty to the point of murder. Certainly Nerone – we know him as Nero – was psychopathic. But what about the other characters?

Leaving out the subplots and campy servants, the story is simple. Nerone is Emperor. He is burdened by an Empress, Ottavia, whom he no longer loves. He wants to marry Poppea, an ambitious spitfire, but first has to work up the nerve to dump Ottavia, who has her own power base. His tutor, the philosopher and playwright Seneca, who, like Polonius, serves up one empty platitude after another, tries to dissuade him. In the end, Nerone gets what he wants, exiling Ottavia to certain death, sending the order through underlings that Seneca must kill himself and crowning his beloved Empress. It all ends with a rapturous love duet, but those acquainted with ancient Roman history know that Nerone will tire of Poppea and dispose of her as he disposed of Ottavia (and his mother Agrippina earlier). To complicate matters, Ottavia has schemed to have Poppea killed and Seneca, whom the late art critic Robert Hughes called “a hypocrite almost without equal in the ancient world,” has schemed to his own advantage all through the opera. Nice people.

The BEMF production, which it first presented in 2009, and its extraordinary cast brought it all to vivid life. The BEMF not only follows the latest ideas about how early music sounded, but it follows the latest ideas about how early opera productions looked (with obvious updates like the use of electric lights). So, the costumes, thanks to Anna Watkins, were opulent, the sets, by Gilbert Blin, looked as if they were taken directly from period engravings (with the addition of color), and the acting was formalized according to 17th century standards. Rather than looking like a museum diorama, however, the age-old conventions worked dramatically, not least because the cast was so comfortable with them. The BEMF’s historicist approach was more convincing than some “updated” early music productions I’ve seen, for instance, the San Francisco Opera’s recent production of Handel’s “Partenope,” reset in 1920s Paris, in which, among many other absurdities, the protagonist Arsace is discovered sitting on a toilet wrapped head to toe in toilet paper, the unfortunate mummy being the estimable countertenor David Daniels.

The singing and acting were just about perfect, Boston-based soprano Amanda Forsythe as Poppea and Australian countertenor David Hansen as Nerone setting the standard for the rest of the cast. In their first scene together, they make their desire for each other palpable. Hansen is seen leaving Poppea’s residence after a night of lovemaking, his blouse falling off his shoulder, exposing a nipple. Forsythe comes running after him, begging him not to leave. Forsythe, whose characterful soprano moves from the heat of passion to the cold of scheming ambition on a dime, her eyes ablaze, turning out perfect coloratura as the role demands, is seductive in both her singing and acting, mounting a reclining Hansen to keep him from leaving. Hansen’s countertenor is full-bodied and heroic (even if the character he plays is not), and he uses his brilliant coloratura for dramatic effect. Their parting is erotically hot, each matching the other in vocal ornamentations and physical interaction. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

What makes Boston such a satisfying city for early music lovers is that we got to hear Forsythe and Hansen sing the same roles in another opera, Handel’s “Agrippina,” just six weeks earlier. A Boston Baroque semi-staged modern dress production, it featured the two as relative youngsters, even though it was written some 60-odd years later. (Sort of like Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”) In “Agrippina,” Forsythe portrayed Poppea as a classic adventuress, a material girl in love with jewels and luxury, not yet the evil schemer she became, and Hansen played Nerone as a feckless mama’s boy, manipulated by his ambitious mother, Agrippina, who set him on the road to murder and mayhem by her own ruthless example.

The fruits of that early training are evident in “Poppea.” Forsythe showed revenge-lust when she learns that Nerone is planning to send Ottavia into exile, paving the way for her becoming Empress. And Hansen played Nerone as increasingly unhinged, using his florid coloratura to suggest madness, catching himself flying out of control just in time to pull it back in. He created a mad scene where there really wasn’t one.

One hopes they get to sing these roles together again – you can’t always count on getting two young singers with voices close to perfection for their roles tearing up the stage as they tear up the world. Their sublime if cynical love-duet that closes the opera, “Pur ti miro,/Pur ti godo…” (I gaze at you/I rejoice in you.”) should be heard more widely. The BEMF, which just won a Grammy for best opera recording for its Charpentier pastiche “Orphee,” has plans to record the Monteverdi trilogy. Let them begin with “Poppea.”

And then there’s the rest of the cast. As Ottavia, Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer, played a woman scorned with emotionally affecting power. (Although she couldn’t erase the memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whom I heard sing the role at the San Francisco Opera.) Ottavia has two standout moments. In the first, “Disprezzata regina” (Despised queen), Mercer captured the panic and anguish of a powerful woman who fears for her life as well as her position. The second, her exile aria, “Addio Roma/Addio patria, amici addio” (Farewell Rome, farewell my country/my friends, farewell), breaks your heart.

As Seneca, the German Christian Immler offered pompous pronouncements left and right, taking the pose of an old-school rhetorician. His light and expressive baritone only underscored the emptiness of his rhetoric, although his lovely aria about the peace and solitude he finds in his country house seemed heartfelt. When delivered the message that he must kill himself – it was the Roman way - Seneca rose to something like nobility. Three acolytes, surrounding him as he strips off his outer garments and slits his wrist, sing one of the most moving moments in the entire opera, “Non morir, Seneca, no! (Don’t die, Seneca, no!), their voices rising in heartrending despair.

The remaining members of the large cast deserve more comment than I can give them here – there are two more operas and the Vespers to get to! As the nurses, a reliable source of humor in early operas, Canadian mezzo Laura Pudwell as Arnalta, Poppea’s old nurse and current confidante; and countertenor José Lemos in a drag role as Nutrice, Ottavia’s nurse, were superb busybodies, helping to lighten the proceedings. And Arnalta got to sing a lovely lullaby that revealed a lyric side to her character.

As Ottone, who is in love with Poppea and thought she was in love with him, countertenor Nathan Medley was touching, although the word was that he was not feeling well – it was not announced from the stage - and his brief appearance as a shepherd in “Orfeo” a few nights later, demonstrated that he possesses a light, flexible, beautiful instrument. As Drusilla, a lady of the court who loves Ottone – and ends up with him, thanks to an uncharacteristically generous act by Nerone – Boston soprano Teresa Wakim put in one of her reliably committed performances. As the poet Lucano, a friend of Nerone, BEMF regular Zachary Wilder, now living in Paris, gave the best performance I’ve heard from him – until I heard him the next night in “Ulisse.” And to those who played gods and goddesses and virtues and smaller supporting roles: well done!

I heard “Poppea” Tuesday night and was back at the B.U. Theatre the next night for another three and a half hour production, this one a company premiere, “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria,” Monteverdi’s penultimate opera. It wasn’t, alas, as successful as “Poppea.” It shared the same production values; indeed, the flats that were seen in “Poppea” were recycled here. It was mainly an issue of casting: Not all the singers were ideal for their parts.

The story, drawn from Homer, is more familiar than that of “Poppea.” Monteverdi’s librettist, Giacomo Badoardo, limited his text to just the final scenes of the epic, when Ulysses, after his 20 years of wandering finally returns home to Ithaca and Penelope, his faithful wife who has been waiting for him all that time. Even with that compressed story line, there are details that those who remember their Homer will miss. In the original, Penelope weaves every day putting off the suitors who pay court to her, hoping to win her hand, telling them that when she completes her work, she will choose one of them, only to pull out her weaving every night. In the opera, that is eliminated, as is the fact that only Ulysses’s old dog remembers him when he returns to court dressed as a beggar, and then promptly dies.

The production is effective in the larger sense. I wish I could say it was the best “Ulisse” I’ve ever seen, but Boston Baroque put on a semi-staged modern-dress version last year that was superior in almost every way.

But “Ulisse” is a harder opera to love than “Poppea.” It lacks characters as purely evil as Nerone and as conniving as Poppea. The worst you can say about the characters is that the three suitors are opportunistic. Penelope’s faithfulness cannot compete dramatically with Poppea’s cupidity. Poppea is the party girl; Penelope, the party poop.

As Ulisse, Canadian tenor Colin Balzer was in strong voice and emotionally affecting in his reunion scenes with the faithful shepherd Eumete and later with his son Telemaco. His low, almost baritonial tenor, contrasted nicely with the higher tenors of the characters playing Eumete and Telemaco. It was a mistake, however, to double cast him as the allegorical character Human Frailty, who opens the opera, causing confusion when he later appeared as Ulisse. Boston Baroque used a contrasting voice in that role, a countertenor, to both musical and dramatic effect.

As Eumete, tenor Jason McStoots, Boston’s singer for all-seasons, was excellent as always with his distinctively grainy but sweet voice and his clear enunciation of the text. As Telemaco, lyric tenor Zachary Wilder showed, as he had in “Poppea,” that he had newly matured as a singer. Only two years ago, as the wimpy Osman in “Almira,” he seemed tentative. As Melanto, Penelope’s confidante who wants to get married but can’t until Penelope gives her blessing, San Francisco-based mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah made pleasant sounds while showing her frustration. As her lover Eurimaco, BEMF favorite, tenor Aaron Sheehan was as sweet-voiced as ever. Who wouldn’t want to marry him? The two of them had a lovely duet in which they couldn’t take their hands off each other.

Among the three suitors, baritone Christian Immler stood out as Antinoo. Boston tenor Charles Blandy was fine as Anfinomo, but countertenor José Lemos seemed outside his comfort zone – gowns and turbans - as Pisandro. A disappointment was tenor Patrick Kilbride as the glutton Iro. He sounded good and he did all the right, meaning gross, things, like slitting a pig up its belly upon his entrance, and laughing like an idiot, but he had the unfortunate task of following Boston Baroque’s Marc Molomot, who was positively Rabelaisian in his slobbering, sniveling, porcine performance. Another disappointment was the Brit Matthew Brook as Nettuno (Neptune), the kind of bass-baritone whose words get lost as his voice gets lower, just like certain sopranos lose their vowels and consonants as their voices get higher. His counterpart in Boston Baroque’s production, the Portuguese João Fernandes, set a standard that won’t soon be surpassed – his resonant voice seemed to emerge from the depths of the ocean and his words even at that level were audible. Still, Brook and Jason McStoots, doing double-duty as Giove (Jove), had a great duet over which would control Ulisse’s fate. It’s always a delight to see the gods indulge in a power-struggle.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was Greek-Canadian mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi’s performance as Penelope, arguably the most important role in the opera. Lacking a beautiful voice, she nonetheless started strong, singing passionately but with restraint about her long anguish waiting for her wandering husband. Her repeated cries of “Torna, torna, Ulisse” were expertly delivered and emotionally touching. But hers was a one-note performance. I don’t know whether that was her choice or the direction she received from Blin, but it was a mistake to make her and her court relentlessly mournful throughout the evening, the full-of-life Melanto the only exception. With her long face and ashen skin, Penelope made you realize that the only reason the suitors were interested in her was her wealth and power. How different Jennifer Rivera, who wore a sexy floor-length dove-gray gown in the Boston Baroque production was. While remaining faithful to her long-gone husband and constantly putting off the insistent suitors, she was still a lively presence. You understood that the suitors might want her for herself, not just her financial and political assets. Only at the very end of the work, when Ulisse returns to court and Penelope finally accepts him, does Nesi break out in a smile and become a loving woman. It was a long wait, and it was welcome, but it was a dramatic mistake. The two, like the lovers in “Poppea,” end the opera in a rapturous duet, this time utterly lacking in cynicism.

The next night, Thursday, I moved down the street to Jordan Hall to hear the “Vespers of 1610” – and back 30-odd years in time. Monteverdi wrote “Poppea” and “Ulisse” as an old man in his 70s in Venice where he was the most important composer in the most important music town in Europe. He wrote both the Vespers and “Orfeo” in middle age, when he was the court composer in Mantova, one of the major centers of Renaissance culture in Italy, attracting over several generations major painters, architects, poets and musicians.

In Mantova, Monteverdi was actively shrugging off the church-dominated polyphony that prevailed to learn from the madrigals he had been composing to create a new, song-based music with one melodic line supported by harmony rather than the dense multi-voiced compositions of the past. In other words, he led the first revolution in music in which “popular” music displaced “official” music. But with the “Vespers,” he was half in the present he was creating and half in the past. It is a work for the church, a sacred work, a mass for the Blessed Virgin, and it shares the character of earlier densely composed church music.

The BEMF performance featured many of the singers who had had been singing opera earlier in the week. Unfortunately, Amanda Forsythe bowed out, in order to save her voice for her additional performances in “Ulisse,” in which she sang the small role of Giunone (Juno), and “Poppea,” in which she was the It-girl. She was replaced by Shannon Mercer, the Ottavia of “Poppea,” who was more than up for the assignment. Nathan Medley, the Ottone in “Poppea,” was evidently still not 100 percent, and he was replaced on the last minute by Reginald Mobley, who was so good you don’t know why he wasn’t engaged in the first place.

For me it was the best singing of the week. Freed of costumes and the necessity of acting, the singers were freed to sing. And it was beautiful beyond words. The chamber orchestra, comprised of only ten players, augmented by five horn players from the Dark Horse Consort, made a wonderful sound. Conducted by Stephen Stubbs, for once without his therobo and chittrone, the orchestra was led by concertmaster Robert Mealy, who, when he plays his violin standing, as he does here, bends his knees in rhythm to the music as if he’s dancing, emphasizing the music’s origins in dance as well as song. The orchestra played with transparent textures, and the vocalists produced cascades of sound with opportunities for solos, duets and smaller vocal ensembles.

Colin Balzer, our Ulisse, sang robustly, with depths, but in his first solo, “Nigra sum” from the Song of Songs, he was sweet-voiced. Teresa Wakim and Mercer sang two duets together, one with Balzer providing an “echo” effect, which were absolutely gorgeous. In “Audi coelum,” Zachary Wilder sang beatifically, an angelic voice from heaven, with Italianate warmth, echoed from off-stage by Jason McStoots.

Note: This magical concert will be given at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, Saturday, June 20, with some cast changes. Forsythe and Medley are scheduled to appear, and tenors Balzer and Wilder will be replaced by Aaron Sheehan and Charles Blandy, and Christian Immler will be replaced by Matthew Brook.

Friday, I took the day off, although I regret now that I didn’t attend the performance of Vox Luminis, the Belgian group that presented a concert of music by Heinrich Schütz and the Bach family, which my new friend from Miami told me was superb. I did go to the Exhibition, which for many, especially practicing musicians, is the heart of the festival. I looked at weird and unusual instruments, listened to harpsichordists trying out instruments, talked with a Nipmuc Indian from Maine who was selling traditional wind instruments, and bought too many CDs.

Saturday, again at Jordan Hall, we end at the beginning. The BEMF repeated its sublime 2012 semi-staged production of “Orfeo” with essentially the same cast. Local tenor Aaron Sheehan, his voice darker, deeper and richer, but still sweet, again proved to be the ideal Orfeo for our time. Tall, thin, handsome, noble in bearing – I don’t know how many times I’ve used those terms to describe him - Sheehan doesn’t just play the role, he becomes the role. Sheehan was the Grammy winner this past year for his lead role in another BEMF opera based on the Orpheus legend, Charpentier’s “La Descent d’Orphée aux Enfers,” which made me think, wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear him sing the lead in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Turns out he is: but not in Boston, or at least it’s not yet scheduled. He will sing “Orphée,” the French version of the revolutionary opera, in Seattle in May. But since the conductor is Stephen Stubbs and the production is by Gilbert Blin, we shouldn’t be surprised if it ends up here sooner or later.

The collegial nature of the festival is that Sheehan, who had the starring role in “Orfeo” for only one night, sang supporting roles in both of the other Monteverdi trilogy operas: Eurimaco in “Ulisse”; and three roles in “Poppea”: Liberto, the captain of the Praetorian guard, one of Seneca’s acolytes, and a consul. That’s being a team player.

“Orfeo” is, of course, more than Orfeo. As the nymph Euridice, who brings Orfeo out of a deep funk brought on by not being loved, Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin sang with a strong but sweet voice. Fellow Canadian, soprano Shannon Mercer, had one of the most dramatic moments of the evening as Euridice’s friend Silvia, who brings the bad news that she has been bit by a snake and died to Orfeo and the nymphs and shepherds celebrating their marriage. Her aria, “Ahi caso acerbo, ahi fato empio and crudele” (Ah bitter fate, ah wicked and cruel destiny) is hair-raising, and Mercer, storming into the celebration gave it her all. Shortly, Orfeo follows with his most heart-rending aria, the emotional and musical highlight of the opera –“Tu se’ morta, mia vita, ed io respiro?” (You are dead, my life, and I still breathe?) The way Monteverdi is able to move from the joyful celebration of the nymphs and shepherds to Silvia’s intense bearing of bad news, to Orfeo’s mournfulness, is extraordinary, rare among dramatists in any genre.

Of course, there is more. In the underworld, Italian bass Marco Bussi rules as Plutone and Teresa Wakim as his consort Proserpina. Both are excellent, Bussi displaying a powerful, ringing bass. Bass Matthew Brook as Caronte (Charon), the hooded figure who ferries the dead across the river Styx, was fine, more effective than he was a Nettuno in “Ulisse,” but it was hard to get memories of the exceptional baritone Douglas Williams, who played the role in 2012, out of my mind. And Jason McStoots, taking on a number of characters, was good as usual. As Apollo, Orfeo’s father, he and his son have a great duet, their voices blending to perfection, as he ushers his son into heaven.

When it was over, I thought, for opera, it’s been all down hill from here, but remember: “Orfeo” isn’t really an opera; opera didn’t exist when it was written.

Whatever it is or was, it is a profound pleasure. (Although I still think the scrolls with witty comments unfurled by the singers from time to time and the mime work were gilding the lily.) It will be repeated with the same cast Sunday, June 21, in the Berkshires.