Intrigue in Rome, politics versus passion, servants gossiping, all of it underscored by a "continuo ensemble" with such instruments as a lute, theorbo, harp, viola da gamba and guitars. Welcome to Monteverdi's dramma per musica (musical drama) "L'incoronazione di Poppea," one of the earliest baroque operas and a forerunner of the modern opera.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Seattle's Early Music Guild is producing a fully staged production of "Poppea" at the Intiman Theatre. The show should appeal to a wide audience, said musical director Stephen Stubbs. "It's closer to a Shakespeare play set to music than Verdi opera. Monteverdi had a whole range of dynamics in his plot; it runs the gamut of human emotions."
Monteverdi (1567-1643) began pioneering his form of musical drama with "L'Orfeo." That work really is just a play with music, said Stubbs, in that the dialogue and action make as much sense without the music as with it. But in his two later works, "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria" ("The Return of Ulysses," 1641) and "L'incoronazione di Poppea" ("The Coronation of Poppea," 1642), the emotions of the characters and twists in the plot began to be revealed through the music as much as the dialogue. That innovation puts Monteverdi closer to later composers, like Verdi, than his immediate successors such as Gluck or Handel.
"Monteverdi directly influenced everyone after him, sowing the seeds of ideas that have gone into all operas," said Stubbs. However, the rise of the castrati (male singers castrated in adolescence to preserve high voices) turned opera into a "beauty contest of arias, with composers like Handel writing for these superstars with very little attention to the drama. Monteverdi's work is closer to our modern sensibility in that you can identify with the characters and even follow the plot."
For August Dernhard, the director of the Early Music Guild, choosing this opera to celebrate the Guild's anniversary is a logical expansion of the Guild's series of concerts and other musical events. "Our goal is to produce a baroque opera every two years," he said, "with this being the first fully staged production."
Earlier productions of one-acts or concert versions of baroque operas convinced the Guild that there is an audience ready for this type of musical drama.
"We see it as appealing to all sides. People involved in the chamber music scene find it a pretty easy transition to opera," Dernhard said, while those who love opera find it an appealing introduction to early baroque music.
For this production, the Early Music Guild asked music scholar and critic Theodore Deacon to recreate his production of "Poppea," which moves the action to Mussolini's Rome. "It was done at the University of Washington in 1988 and very popular," said Dernhard. Deacon previously produced the EMG's presentations of Monteverdi's "Combattimento" and "Ballo delle ingrate."
The updated setting might surprise some Guild fans. "It is a bit of departure for us not to do it strictly in period," said Dernhard, "but this works dramatically, and we did not want to put any restraints on Deacon's directing."
Monteverdi's operas do appeal to stage directors more than other baroque operas, concurred Stubbs, because stories like "Poppea" provide such a mix of characters. Besides the highborn Romans scheming to become emperor or empress, there are servants and soldiers who comment on the action of their "betters."
It is this mix of high drama and comedic relief that moves Monteverdi closer to Shakespeare than standard opera plots, said Stubbs. "It became the convention in opera to have either very serious drama or comedy, but not to mix the two. With Monteverdi, this mix is very appealing to stage directors."
To serve the drama and attract a wider theater audience, the Guild also decided to work with Intiman Theatre to stage the opera there rather than in a concert hall. "Even though the space is designed to be a spoken-word theater and the sound is a little dry, we think this will work really well," said Dernhard, because the Intiman has good sightlines and a built-in audience for a "different" type of production. One of the things that attracted the Guild to Intiman was their audience's expectation of great theater, added Dernhard.
After early rehearsals in the space, Stubbs decided to amplify some of the softer string instruments but reported no problems with the singers being heard in all corners of the house.
For the music, the Guild went to the experts in period performance to create a sound as close to Monteverdi as possible. Stubbs and co-music director Fred Hauptman assembled a topnotch team of instrumentalists and vocalists for "Poppea."
The Seattle Baroque Orchestra, under the leadership of renowned early-music violinist Ingrid Matthews, provides the string ensemble.
Guild members make up the on-stage continuo ensemble (a feature of baroque opera that functions similar to the bass and rhythm guitar of a rock band), including Stubbs on lute and guitar and Dernhard on theorbo and guitar.
For the voices, the Guild recruited the cast from an international pool of opera singers. "We can now set a very high standard because there are many more sing-ers specializing in this type of music," said Stubbs. "It is the same reason that you are seeing these works crossing back into the major opera houses around the world." A new generation of male singers is training to sing in the higher ranges; although not the same as the castrati, these countertenors and male sopranos can handle many of the roles previously reassigned to mezzo-soprano women or rewritten for tenors.
Male soprano Michael Maniaci just finished an engagement at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy, prior to coming to Seattle to sing Nerone in "Poppea." Dernhard was delighted to have him agree to join this production. "His voice is so beautiful. He is in the midst of a quickly accelerating career and in demand throughout the world," said Dernhard.
The role of Nerone, or Emperor Nero, can be transposed to a tenor part, said Stubbs, but the "spectacular duets" between Nero and Poppea lose much of the effect that Monteverdi wanted. "Luckily, Maniaci is one of the rare breed of singer who can do this role as written."
The cast also includes Russian-American soprano Yulia Van Doren making her debut as Poppea, American mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox as Poppea's rival Octavia and South American counter-tenor Jose Lemos as Poppea's former lover Ottone.
"L'incoronazione di Poppea" will run for four performances on Feb. 9, 10, 16 and 17 at the Intiman. Tickets are $35-$100 and available by calling 325-7066. All performances begin at 7:30 p.m., and Deacon will give a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m.