The UCSB Opera Theater will crown its 2011-12 season with three performances of the 1642 opera The Coronation of Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea) by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).
Professor Simon Williams directs the stage action, Paul Sahuc the music and Temmo Korisheli the orchestra. The sets were designed by Xarene Eskandar, the costumes by Stacie Logue, and Benjamin Brecher will serve as producer.
The most important members of the production — the singers — will, of course, be drawn from the vast pool of brilliant student vocalists currently chasing paper through the Music Department.
It’s impossible to overstate the greatness of Monteverdi, yet our awareness of it, even among connoisseurs, is very recent. Writing in 1943, the famous musicologist Ernest Newman wrote of Gluck’s Orpheo ed Eurydice that “it is the oldest opera now in the repertory.” Just two years later, after World War II came to an end, the bombed-out archives, libraries and palaces of Europe yielded up a virtual Masonic treasure trove of scores, creating a new scholarly discipline — “Early Music” — and fueling the programs of hundreds of newly created “baroque” ensembles.
There was about a 20-year gap, however, between the discovery of myriad wonderful scores and the time when the bulk of them had been cleaned up sufficiently to provide the basis of reliable performances. (There were early signs of the impending flood. I own a 1953 recording, on the Concert Hall Society label, of Monteverdi’s stunning tour de force, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that was ever going to make the Billboard 100.)
The 1960s, which began with the spectacular Gustav Mahler revival, also witnessed an explosion of recordings — usually on “budget” labels such as Nonesuch and Turnabout, with attractive and colorful laminated sleeves — of the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi and Tomaso Albinoni, the madrigals and motets of Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz, the dance collections of Michael Praetorius and Johann Schein, the songs, dances and sacred music of Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois and Giaches de Wert (by no means exhausting the list).
In this same decade, the operas of Monteverdi, Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel were performed and recorded — in many cases, the first productions for 200 years. (While working my way through the University of Washington as a stage hand in this era, I participated in memorable stagings of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and the very opera under consideration now, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea.)
Poppea is Monteverdi’s last opera, perhaps his last composition. A fair amount of mystery surrounds the work. The only scores we have date from the 1650s, a decade or so after the composer’s death. Some Young Turks have even suggested that what we have may not be by Monteverdi at all. But the internal consistencies make that quasi impossible. Anyway, if he didn’t write it, who could possibly have done so? One would have to posit some hitherto unknown master, give him credit for this work alone and contrive his utter disappearance immediately thereafter. Why bother?
Some object to the work on moral grounds. They have a point: At the final curtain, vice reigns supreme, while virtue is undone. The Roman emperor, the egregious Nero, has succeeded in getting his greedy mistress, Poppea, crowned Empress. It is of no consolation to the censorious prudes that, historically, it was but a short time after her coronation that a pregnant Poppea was beaten — actually, kicked — to death by her imperial husband.
Within the time frame of Monteverdi’s opera, the damage has been done and quite the wrong message has been sent to the impressionable minds of the audience. It is pointless to plead satire with such people, for they are impervious to the genre. When he wrote this opera, Monteverdi had been living in Venice — a republic — for 39 years. He had settled there in the first place out of disgust for Rome, it’s corrupt and arbitrary rulers. His opera depicts the eternal city as a cesspool, and it is folly to suppose that this is happenstance.
One more point. In its Monteverdi entry, my antique edition of Grove’s Dictionary, from 1935, keeps bringing in Handel, of whose absolute superiority as an opera composer we are reminded ad nauseum. Well, I adore Handel, but I would be reluctant to sit through any of his operas, even on salary, whereas the operas of Monteverdi, from Orfeo (1607) through Poppea, hold me in my seat, riveted and spellbound, from first note to the last.
The Coronation of Poppea will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $7 for students, and are available at the door.