CHICAGO — It is one thing to read scholarly affirmation of Claudio Monteverdi as the great master and exemplar of opera at its genesis in the early 17th century, or even to hear audio recordings of his stage works in stylish performances. But it is quite something else to sit in a small, acoustically suitable theater and witness Monteverdi’s last opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, re-created by accomplished, knowing singers, handsomely costumed, and accompanied by a tiny band on period instruments — the whole played against evocatively painted drops. That was the absorbing, vivacious, indeed scintillating experience offered Sept. 22 by Haymarket Opera Company: the formative art of Monteverdi brought to present life in Jarvis Opera Hall at DePaul University.
L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) was Monteverdi’s last opera and is generally regarded as his masterpiece. That said, it’s also generally acknowledged that the great composer, in his seventies when the work premiered in Venice in 1643, was not its sole musical author. Comparison is often made with Rubens in later life, painting key elements of a canvas and leaving the rest to younger assistants. In Monteverdi’s case, the help may have come primarily from his pupil Francesco Cavalli.
In any case, the result is a splendid lyric drama of historical first-century Rome and the hellbent determination of Poppea to capture the seat next to Nero’s throne, displacing his wife Ottavia. Spoiler alert: Poppea pulls it off. Virtue is not among the cast of characters in this retelling by librettist Giovanni Francesco Busenello. They’re a calculating, impulsive, self-serving lot: Besides Poppea, Nero, and Ottavia, we have Poppea’s irrepressible suitor Ottone (also called Ortho), a lass named Drusilla who’s enamored of Ottone, and the pompous philosopher-courtier Seneca, who doesn’t know when to shut up.
Monteverdi captures them all with the rapierlike directness and wry verity of Mozart.
While opera has evolved in several directions over the four centuries since Poppea saw first light, Haymarket’s meticulously considered and fully fleshed-out production debunked the idea that operatic evolution somehow equates with improvement. As a conflation of drama and music, Poppea doesn’t seem all that far removed from, say, Berg’s Wozzeck, notwithstanding the obvious differences in subject matter and harmonic language. In their musical continuity, their inflected albeit ceaseless vocal streams, the two works are recognizable as versions of the same lyric art form. It was the assured musical fluency that impressed me more than anything else about Haymarket’s altogether winning Poppea.
Of course, that sense of musical — and thereby dramatic — flow resided in a thousand details. Musical values began in the pit, where six musicians performed on period instruments: two violins, theorbo, guitar, bass violin, harpsichord, and organ. Haymarket music director Craig Trompeter, presiding from the harpsichord, sustained expressive tempos that neither rushed the singers nor allowed the musical line to fall slack. Likewise, stage director Sarah Edgar managed to invoke period dramatic gestures without turning the whole affair into comic parody. Indeed, funny business is but a sometime thing in Poppea, and, if anything, the integrated posturing effectively underscored dramatic tensions.
Vocally, the production was a treat, especially in the agile and ample sound of the three leads. Soprano Erica Schuller offered an imposing Poppea, as resolute of voice as she was convincing in her imperious stage presence. As her obstacle to the throne, Ottavia, soprano Kimberly McCord sang with the pure ferocity of a woman wronged and an empress whose fate is irrevocably sealed. But the voice that ultimately commanded the stage and carried truly patrician resonance belonged to mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger as the lustful, impatient Nerone. Here was lustrous singing, by turns ardent and regal and petulant.
In the two main supporting roles, Ottone and Drusilla, countertenor Michael Skarke and soprano Kristin Knutson upheld the show’s high vocal standard as well as its credible personifications. One might have wished for greater expressive range in bass-baritone David Govertsen’s technically solid Seneca. Male soprano Elijah McCormack was an antic delight as Ottavia’s all-too-helpful valet, and tenor Justin Berkowitz cut a deliciously crusty old nurse to Poppea.