Baroque in Brooklyn

The elements of opera: The Dutch National Opera staging of Monteverdi's Poppea, at BAM.Photo: Marco Borggreve

It wasn’t so long ago that Claudio Monteverdi’s three surviving operas were considered dusty relics, best left in the library or only studied in graduate-school music courses. Now, thanks to the current enthusiasm for Baroque musical theater, they are performed everywhere (though not as yet at the Metropolitan Opera), and each has been recorded many times over. They have even been presented as a cycle, most recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which imported a trio of stylistically differing productions to test the dramatic vitality, musical power, and theatrical flexibility of these pieces.

Seeing all three operas in sequence only sharpens the regret that most of Monteverdi’s operatic output, more than a dozen works, seems irretrievably lost. We have his first, Orfeo from 1607, but everything after that, up to Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (1640) and L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642), has vanished. The development from Orfeo to those two masterpieces is astonishing, and one can only speculate from the composer’s madrigals and sacred music how it all happened. The fact that we’ll never see or hear the stage pieces that came in between is positively tragic, since Monteverdi wrote the first works of genius in the history of opera.

BAM led off with Ulisse, perhaps the most challenging score of the three. It is long (more than three hours of music when performed uncut), the dramatic pacing is leisurely, and the composer’s techniques of musical declamation to portray character and psychological development are here at their most refined and poetically subtle. I’ve never seen a production that explores the heart of the drama quite so effectively as this one from the Aix-en-Provence Festival, staged by Adrian Noble of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The action unfolds with a quiet eloquence and grace that generate a subdued but powerful emotional impact amid the stark simplicity of Anthony Ward’s sand-strewn stage – an ingenious evocation of Baroque theatrical fantasy and timeless myth. The moving allegorical prologue sets the tone for the mortal drama to come, as Human Fragility, naked and vulnerable, is buffeted about as Ulysses will soon be – and, indeed, as we all eventually are – by Time, Fortune, and Eros.

The musical realization by the cast and William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants was no less inspired. Christie’s period-instrument band and period-sensitive singers long ago proved their expertise at revitalizing French Baroque opera, and here they prove themselves just as adept at communicating Monteverdi’s very different but equally intense word-conscious music dramas. No doubt Kresimir Spicer’s Ulysses and Marijana Mijanovic’s Penelope would have been just as riveting even if they were not a real-life couple and their Balkan Romeo-and-Juliet romance (he’s Croatian and she’s Serbian) a news item. But then, the whole cast was clearly gripped by the opera, as were Christie and his piercingly eloquent instrumentalists.

The Poppea production came from the Dutch National Opera, staged by Pierre Audi with the musical forces of Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset. Perhaps if the Ulisse had not been so superb, this earnest effort, first performed in 1993, might have looked less static and dramatically ineffective. Audi seemed to direct the opera as a moment-to-moment character pageant rather than creating the seamless integration of words, action, and music that Noble achieved with Ulisse. As a result, the clash of virtue and evil, with the almost nonchalant triumph of the latter, never generated much tension. And Michael Simon’s austere sets – the elements of fire, water, and rocks dominating a barren landscape – were pure abstractions that helped send the emotional temperature even lower. The cast was also spotty – only Graciela Araya’s moving Ottavia, Sandrine Piau’s neatly sung Drusilla, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s exquisitely stylish Arnalta were up to the highest vocal standards – but Rousset’s elegant musicians were a constant source of pleasure. The Orfeo was yet to come at this writing. However that turns out, and despite a disappointing Poppea, BAM’s Monteverdi cycle was a bold and laudable gesture on behalf of an operatic genius.

Do Italian conductors have a special line to the Verdi Requiem? I’m beginning to think so. My first exposure to this overwhelming musical fresco was on discs – the historic Toscanini, Serafin, and De Sabata recordings – and the most memorable live performances I’ve heard since then were led by Guido Cantelli, Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, and now Riccardo Muti. Muti recently conducted the Requiem in Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic and Westminster Symphonic Choir, a belated centennial tribute to Verdi but by some distance the most musically distinguished one the composer has yet received hereabouts, in the concert hall or opera house.

Like his predecessors, Muti is as persuasive conducting Brahms, Stravinsky, and Debussy as he is presiding over Italian opera. Perhaps that explains why his Verdi is so special. He not only taps into all the operatic heat that gives the Requiem its dramatic power, he also structures the score in ways that seem to elude non-natives or conductors who do only opera. A year ago, James Levine led a high-powered reading in Carnegie Hall, but it had little of the instrumental color, rhetorical eloquence, or exquisitely shaped phrasing that informed Muti’s interpretation. The orchestra’s rapport with the conductor was more alive and responsive than it is with most guest maestros. And to think how close Muti came to becoming the Philharmonic’s next musical director. Requiem connoisseurs may have found the solo quartet a trifle lightweight, but Barbara Frittoli, Violeta Urmana, Giuseppe Sabbatini, and Samuel Ramey all sang with vocal distinction, emotional commitment, and a real sense of occasion. A complex network of microphones crisscrossed the stage, so I trust that this fabulous performance was being preserved for posterity and will eventually reach an even larger audience.

Claudio Monteverdi
Three operas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Verdi’s Requiem
New York Philharmonic and Westminster Symphonic Choir conducted by Riccardo Muti at Avery Fisher Hall.

Baroque in Brooklyn