Gardiner and colleagues wrap Monteverdi series with the cynical, glorious “Poppea”

Mon Oct 16, 2017 at 4:39 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kangmin Justin KIm as Nerone and Hana Blazikova as Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" Sunday at the Harris Theater. Photo: Michael Brosliow

Kangmin Justin Kim as Nerone and Hana Blazikova as Poppea in Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” Sunday at the Harris Theater. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Even those who have been reveling in the past week’s Monteverdi marathon could be forgiven for wondering if early-opera battle fatigue would set in with the lengthy final installment. Will four more hours of Monteverdi start feeling like Götterdämmerung with theorbos?

Happily such was not the case Sunday afternoon with John Eliot Gardiner leading a magisterial performance of  L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Harris Theater, which provided a richly cynical yet musically glorious finale to this three-opera series.

Poppea has always been the problem child of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas. The incomplete and contradictory editions had, until fairly recently, led many to believe that some of the opera was written by other composers. Add a strange and conflicted dramaturgy where evil is rewarded and virtue punished and it’s hard to find a consistent character to root for.

Yet there is an almost Shakespearean breadth and Dickensian social penetration to Poppea that seems to capture all the strata of a not-very-attractive society—from the cynical guards mocking the philandering emperor and servants plotting a reversal of their fortunes to the noble philosopher Seneca, and the epic romance of the selfish Poppea and rapacious Nerone.

If character and dramatic motivation are often all over the map, with its epic scope and richly varied music for nearly two-dozen characters, it is the very contradictions, cross-impulses and disjunctions in Poppea that seem to capture the essence of love, lust and political ambition in all their tangled and conflicted messiness.

Monteverdi’s Nerone is not quite the unbalanced homicidal ruler of historic fame. Yet this Nerone still has his alarming moments and Kangmin Justin Kim embodied both the sincere lover and the royal whack job in waiting with a terrific performance.

“Power countertenor” sounds like an oxymoron, but it applies to Kim. Sporting a quirky Alfalfa-like blond coif—the Korean-American countertenor–a Northwestern alumnus who grew up in Chicago–put across a remarkable fire-and brimstone performance as Nerone. Where has this talented young singer been hiding?

Kim possesses that rare instrument, a large and muscular high male voice. Yet he wields his countertenor with striking ease and flexibility throughout a wide vocal range. While he floated his romantic moments with Poppea in a soft, affectionate style, Kim was most effective in Nerone’s virtuosic rage against Seneca—singing with astounding speed and accuracy, and bringing such an epic, twitchy intensity to the scene that one feared he was going to pop a blood vessel.

Likewise, in the celebrated drinking duet with Nerone’s close friend, the poet Lucano (Zachary Wilder)–ostensibly a joint paean to the beauty of Poppea—Kim makes clear in this staging that Poppea isn’t the switch-hitting emperor’s only love interest. Note the name–Kangmin Justin Kim is headed for a big career.

If Hana Blazikova didn’t quite summon up a comparable dramatic nasty to convey Poppea’s evil side, she characterized adroitly as Nerone’s calculating lover who dreams of ascending to the throne and her own coronation. The Czech soprano delivered her finest vocalism of the past week in Poppea’s love arias.

The final duet for Poppea and Nerone offers  one of the most sublime moments in all opera, and it is unlikely one will ever hear this scene (“Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo”) sung as beautifully nor with such tender intimacy as Kim and Blazikova rendered on Sunday. The stage direction by Gardiner and Elsa Rooke was equally inspired: the lovers began the duet on far sides of the stage, slowly coming together under a single overhead spotlight, with the light slowly fading to black as the glowing music ended the opera in a hushed coda.

Gianluca Buratto has been a rock star throughout this series, taking on multiple roles in the previous operas. The versatile Italian bass delivered his finest performance yet as Seneca—Nerone’s advisor, who is forced to take his own life when unjustly accused of plotting against the emperor by Poppea. Buratto sang with a deep, warmly rounded bass and brought stoic dignity to his final moments. That scene, with the chorus pleading with Seneca not to commit suicide, contains some of the most remarkable, chromatic music of all the Monteverdi operas.

The other countertenor discovery of this final production was Carlo Vistoli as Ottone. The handsome Italian countertenor brought a touching humanity and depth of characterization to the rather weak character who is dominated by others and pines for Poppea. His voice is lovely and Vistoli brought simple yet touching feeling to his Act 1 aria. The excellent soprano Anna Dennis was just as impressive as the sort-of unjustly accused Drusilla, in (inexplicable) love with Ottone.

As Ottavia, Nerone’s discarded wife, Marianna Pizzolato was much more successful than with her bland Penelope in Ulisse Friday night. Granted, this role offers more dramatic opportunities and the Italian mezzo made the most of them, blackmailing Ottone into killing his beloved Poppea, and raging vengefully about Nerone’s betrayal and her revenge on her rival Poppea.

The opera’s lighter moments came largely from a pair of countertenors in drag roles as nurses. As Nutrice, Michal Czerniawski sang a politically incorrect aria cautioning that women need to find a lover while they’re still in their youth. Reginald Mobley nearly stole the show as Poppea’s ambitious nurse Arnalta, sashaying about hilariously, switching gears from high countertenor to lusty baritone when angry, and dreaming of riches when Poppea ascends to the throne.

Silvia Frigato, a vestpocket soprano with a surprisingly ample voice, was delightful in two roles. As a spunky Cupid, she capered triumphantly in the final act as love wins over all. Frigato was just as amusing as the young page Valletto, flinging rapid-fire insults at the philosopher Seneca.

Highest praise to this wonderful cast of singers, the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and, especially, John Eliot Gardiner for directing these glorious, world-encompassing operas with such vitality, understanding and love. Kudos also to the Harris Theater for making it happen and bringing this memorable “Monteverdi 450” tour to Chicago audiences.

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