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BWW Review: What's Really Old is New Again, with POPPEA from Concerto Italiano at Carnegie Hall

Leonardo Cortellazzi and Miah Persson
with therbo. Photo: Steve J Sherman

Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA--THE CORONATION OF POPPEA--is considered the oldest opera in existence, but the version performed by Concerto Italiano at Carnegie Hall the other night, as part of the La Serenissima Festival (celebrating all things Venetian), showed it is also one of the freshest. It also couldn't be more timely, with an egotistical emperor, spiteful goddesses and servants happy to serve the most powerful people in the land (and get what they can out of it).

I must admit that I was a little nervous when I saw the size of the ensemble--nine musicians plus conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini on the harpsichord--hovering together at the center of the huge stage in Carnegie's Stern Hall, but I needn't have been. As soon as they started playing, and the first notes burst forth from the glorious soprano Miah Persson, who sang the dual roles of the goddess Fortuna and the seductress Poppea, I knew that all was right with the world--or, at least, for that moment, with these musicians, in this temple of music. (Elsewhere, I'm not so sure...)

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of Monteverdi, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare and, in its libretto by Giovanni Busenello, shows a deep proclivity for the kinds of characters written by the Bard of Avon. POPPEA, written at the end of his life and premiered in 1643, was considered revolutionary because it was the first opera based on the period in Roman history and, more importantly, the first opera where the evil characters triumph over the virtuous. Unfortunately, there is no final version of the score, which keeps scholars guessing about exactly who-wrote-what (Sacrati? Ferrari? Cavalli?) in major sections of the opera. The libretto, on the other hand, has two alternates and most certainly has Monteverdi's touch in reshaping Busanello's text.

Nevertheless, what we hear today is certainly a masterpiece, no matter who is responsible--certainly, if we compare it to AGRIPPINA, Handel's version of some of the same characters' shenanigans.

With a minimum of props (including some delightfully silly wigs) and concert attire, the dozen singers and orchestra were able to conjure up the world of the Roman emperor Nero (Nerone), his wife Ottavia, his mistress Poppea and her husband or lover (the libretto is ambiguous) Otho (Ottone), with their assorted teachers, friends and servants. Concerto Italiano, led by Alessandrini from the harpsichord, gave an immaculate performance that put the singers--and Maestro Monteverdi--first, putting together an outstanding group of singers for the evening, starting with Persson, who was glamorous both musically and physically in her roles.

Tenor Leonardo Cortellazzi as Nerone showed an attractive voice, both in the opera's famous, final duet with Poppea ("Pur ti miro, pur ti godo") which called for suave singing and in his interplay with his teacher, Seneca (the resonant, flexible bass Salvo Vitale), which did not, as he tells of his determination to marry Poppea. His elaborate, cynical duet celebrating Seneca's death with his friend, Lucano (tenor Valerio Contaldo) was beautifully realized--and could have been translated to the current political scene in Washington.

As Ottone, contralto Sara Mingardo offered an interpretation of unquestionable subtlety, while soprano Roberta Invernizzi raised the roof as the scorned Ottavia. Soprano Monica Piccinini's Drusilla, mad for Ottone, was utterly convincing in her willingness to die for him.

The scene stealer of the evening was countertenor Aurelio Schiavoni, in a shocking pink wig, as Poppea's servant Arnalta. Whether singing Poppea to sleep, just before an unsuccessful assassination attempt, in the beautiful lullaby "Oblivion soave," or in her aria where she proclaims "I who am her nurse ascend to greatness," rejoicing in her rise in prominence along with her mistress, he was wonderful.

The final duet, for Poppea and Nerone after her coronation, "Pur ti miro..." was probably not written by Monteverdi--it's perhaps by Cavalli--but, no matter; it was exquisitely rendered by Persson and Cortellazzi, mirroring their feelings of love, and the end of a beautiful evening.


The members of the ensemble were Nicholas Robinson and Antonio De Secondi (violins), Ettone Belli (viola), Ludovico Minasi (cello), Luca Colli (bass),Craig Marchitelli and Ugo Di Giovanni (theorbis), Flora Papadopoulos (harp) and Ignazio Schifani (harpsichord).

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