Our lovebirds didn't live happily ever after. Tacitus has it that Nero kicked Poppea to death when she was pregnant. Did Monteverdi's audience believe that? Do we?
O’Dette: Audiences at Venetian public opera houses in the 17th century came from a wide range of social ranks. Many were undoubtedly familiar with recently published books about Roman history and certainly would have known how this story continued after Poppea’s coronation. Modern audiences are also pretty well acquainted with this story and will realize that Nero’s madness, already apparent in this opera, continued for the rest of his life. Flashes of Nero’s explosive temper are seen throughout the opera, and the audience will understand that this story will not end as triumphantly as the opera does.
Montiverdi's original Nero was a castrato. Those being in short supply these days, the role is now sung by a tenor or a mezzo-soprano. Why did you choose to cast a tenor?
Stubbs: There are even a few (very few) countertenors today who have the necessary high notes for the part. In this particular case, we had cast Marcus Ullmann for a role in our originally planned centerpiece opera, Graupner’s Antiochus und Stratonica. That work is a large High Baroque opera with chorus and dance troupe. When it became clear in the fall that our global budget would be severely impacted by the current crisis, we made the change to Poppea, which has no chorus or dance and smaller orchestral forces. We looked for a piece that could put the largest part of our scheduled soloists to good use — and this included the option of Nero as a tenor and Ottone as a baritone.
Changes of voice types in this way — based on the practicalities of the best cast available — was absolutely standard practice in Baroque times, and Poppea itself was clearly cast with some changes in voice types in the 17th century. It is not entirely possible to speak about “original intentions.” Nevertheless, we do have choices today, and there are good reasons in favor of each option here. In favor of the tenor option are the believability of the central story of passion between Nero and Poppea, plus the fact that the wonderful duet for Nero and his poet friend Lucano is much stronger with two tenors. On the other side of the ledger are the two duets with Poppea and Nero, which are preferable with two sopranos. This is a case where you really can’t have it all. But for us, the stage chemistry of the leading couple is of paramount importance — and we certainly have that here.
Poppea opens with a beatdown among fortune, virtue, and love, each claiming to be the most powerful. Is this important, or could we just go straight to the action?
Stubbs: In [BEMF stage director] Gilbert Blin’s conception of the work, the gods are not just a decorative add-on but very integral to the whole story. In particular, each of these deities reappears in other guises in our production — Love returning as Valletto, Fortune as Damigella, and Virtue as Pallas Athena to announce Seneca’s death. This means that the prologue is absolutely part of the story — not to mention a fantastic scene in its own right.
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