Springer vs. Nero!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  June 10, 2009

Blin's set is an elegant version of a Baroque stage, with a drop curtain painted with clouds that sometimes rise on a long perspective of flat columns. Muted mauves and grays contribute to the production's reticence. The small Calderwood is appropriately intimate, yet opening night many singers failed to project through the dim acoustic. The three leading women are fine. Canadian soprano Gillian Keith is an ideal Poppea — she has the sexy moves of a dancer, and a silkily pretty voice, and every stylized gesture seems to come from some inner impulse. Big-toned German-born mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel makes an imposing Ottavia, Nerone's rejected wife — heroic, vengeful, and finally tragic in her farewell to Rome. And gleaming soprano Amanda Forsythe is a perfect Drusilla, who lends her lover Ottone (German baritone Holger Falk) her clothes when he attempts to murder Poppea and then takes the blame when the plot fails. Falk captures Ottone's torment at being ordered to kill the woman he both hates and still loves, just as German baritone Christian Immler has the vocal heft and dignity to make a convincing Seneca. Aaron Sheehan, Ross Hauck, and Douglas Williams are superb as the three guards who regret bringing Seneca the bad tidings.

One of the most beautiful moments in Poppea is the lullaby ("Oblivion suave") Poppea's nurse Arnalta sings her to sleep with. Blin's unpointed staging doesn't help, and Canadian mezzo Laura Pudwell, who plays her comic scenes too broadly (as if she were funnier than the character), lacks the profound tenderness this aria requires. Tenor Zachary Wilder, cross-dressing as Ottavia's nurse, is funny without sacrificing inwardness. Too many of the smaller roles are taken by singers with small, rather monotonous voices. But the biggest disappointment is German tenor Marcus Ullmann as Nerone: his nasal twang and sit-com characterization — Nero as Adam Sandler? — suggest serious miscasting for this major role. (Poppea continues June 12 and 14 at the Calderwood and then June 19-21 at the Mahaiwe Center in Great Barrington.)

The Cantata Singers had a splendid finale to their season-long exploration of Benjamin Britten last month with a rare American performance of his ambitious early radio cantata The Company of Heaven (1937), settings of a wide variety of texts about angels. The high point was tenor William Hite singing Emily Brontë's poem "A thousand thousand gleaming fires" — the very first piece Britten composed for his lifelong partner, Peter Pears. Conductor David Hoose held this long, uneven, loose-limbed work together, and soprano Karol Ryczek, speakers Marya Lowry and James Petosa, and the Cantata Singers Chorus made substantial contributions.

On an earthier level, the marvelous kids from the Neighborhood House Charter School sang settings they themselves had composed of two charming animal poems by Christina Rossetti. Andy Vores incorporated these settings into his orchestrally inventive ("Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/Will hum about mine ears") and vividly colorful commissioned cantata, Natural Selection, along with other nature poems by Hopkins and Rossetti and a passage from Darwin's TheOrigin of Species. The evening ended back in the spiritual realm with two brief but powerful pieces, Britten's Psalm 150, Anthony Trecek-King leading the chorus and Boston Children's Chorus, and Bach's fiery single-movement cantata Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft ("Now Is the Salvation and the Power"), which, like Britten's radio cantata, was composed for St. Michael's Day.

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