History in three acts

When the directors of the Boston Early Music Festival decided to produce Claudio Monteverdi’s majest

When the directors of the Boston Early Music Festival decided to produce Claudio Monteverdi’s majestic and smoldering “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” they knew there would be unusual problems to bring to life a work that premiered in 1643 in Venice. The show opens Friday.

Among the difficulties were the lack of a complete musical score and few written instructions on sets, scene changes — and there are as many as eight in one act — and other visual aspects, said Gilbert Blin, who is directing the show for the first time and designing the sets.

Because the three-act opera is the world’s first historical opera, Monteverdi was himself experimenting with how to bring to life the true story of the Roman emperor Nero’s obsessive and adulterous love for Poppea, considered the beauty of her day.

Boston Early Music Festival – Monteverdi “L’incoronazione di Poppea”

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington, Mass.

HOW MUCH: $95—$30. The Festival is also having its opening night gala at 10:30 p.m. on stage after opening night. Cost $30.

MORE INFO: www.bemf.org

Monteverdi knew that Venetian audiences at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where the work premiered, would be up on their Roman history. They would know that Nero (A.D. 37-68) exiled Poppea’s husband, Otho, so he could move Poppea into the palace and that Poppea made a cult of her body to better attract and manipulate Nero.

She used the milk from 400 asses for her morning bath to keep her skin white and spent hours before her mirror perfecting the right gestures. They would know how Nero eventually repudiated and exiled his wife Octavia, got Poppea pregnant, and how the couple’s lust and his abuse of power eventually led to her coronation as empress.

Resemblance to theater

Monteverdi’s gifted librettist, Giovanni Francesco Busenello, decided to put all this history into three straightforward acts that span only a day. This means there’s little action but much time given to character development and psychological impact.

“There’s a stronger connection with spoken drama. It’s closer to Elizabethan theater,” Blin said. “It’s free and dynamic and a mix of the serious and the comic. Monteverdi will have a love duet and then present a joker character.”

All this was risky. Venice’s first opera house had opened only six years before and Monteverdi was 76 and had only months to live.

“Monteverdi made a conscious choice to not let people think it was a fairy tale. So there are no people flying through the air or fantasy,” Blin said. “He wanted people to see Nero as the real person he was. No gimmicks.”

There are some detailed written scenarios from the period of what the opera looked like visually, Blin said, but his concern was how to get audiences involved in the immediacy of the passions of as many as 25 characters and to give the opera a more universal appeal, since all social orders were depicted. “I tried to bring a freshness with no updating. This is not a toga party,” Blin said, laughing.

The costume and lighting designers decided to create a world as seen through the eyes of 17th-century Venetian painters by integrating particular fabrics, lighting and colors.

“I hope people will get a sense of antiquity,” Blin said.

Finding the score

But artistic director Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs had more creative issues because there was no actual music score. Rather, there were two handwritten copies that were made in the 1650s during the opera’s revivals, of which one score was discovered in 1888 at a Venetian library and the other score was found in 1930 at the conservatory in Naples. The scores have only the vocal lines, the basso continuo (bass line with some harmonic indications) and four-part instrumental sinfonias and ritornelli, which are played between scenes.

The scores also differ from the printed libretto with significant additions and omissions and the coronation scene and final duet never appeared in the published libretto. Scholars think this music was written by someone other than Monteverdi. So what to do?

“We’re not using an orchestra in the modern sense,” O’Dette said. “With only written bass lines, we’ll play scales and chords. We can rhythmize, do elaborate arpeggios or strum.”

O’Dette and Stubbs will play theorbo, which is like a lute with a 6-foot long neck and double strings and can play in the bass range and chords. There will also be two harpsichords, a baroque harp, which has double strings and can therefore play chromatically, and a viola da gamba. This six-member group will play continuously.

There will also be a string quartet called a consort to play for preludes, dances between the vocal stanzas, set changes, and singers’ entrances and exits. However, none of this music is written.

“We’ve played together a long time and Steven and I trust the musicians to shape the accompaniment the right way,” O’Dette said.

To make sure it all happens without mishap and still sounds spontaneous, the musicians have put in 10-hour rehearsals for three weeks.

Unlocking emotions

It was more difficult, however, to unlock Monteverdi’s intentions emotionally.

“Our cue is the relationship between the vocal line and the bass line,” Stubbs said. “If there’s dissonance or a tension, that might mean tragedy or fear.”

Unlike Handel’s operas, where one feeling is portrayed in a five-minute aria, you have to look to Monteverdi’s word choices to get emotional details because moods are painted moment to moment, much like painting colors on a black and white sketch, Stubbs said.

But this baroque opera is a great opera that has entered the mainstream of opera houses worldwide.

“It’s very powerful and the music covers the entire emotional gamut from sensuous love duets to coarse, comic episodes and tragic paeans. It’s a kaleidoscopic work,” O’Dette said.

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