Going for the Gut

When Monteverdi composed The Coronation of Poppea in 1642, the concept of singing actors was still novel, and the piano hadn't been invented yet. So when Houston Grand Opera stages the early opera masterpiece, it will have to go for baroque. For the first time since the staging of Monteverdi's Orfeo two years ago, HGO will use the costumes, instruments and exaggerated acting styles common in the mid-17th century.

"There's always an interest in hearing these great composers with the instruments they had in their own ear when they wrote the music," says conductor David Fallis, who is also music director for Toronto's Opera Atelier, which collaborated with HGO on the production.

Putting on this show wasn't easy. Monteverdi's score provides only the bass line and vocal part to work from. To fill in the chords, Fallis had to turn to Monteverdi's madrigals -- pieces written for multiple voices -- to determine what harmonies the composer liked to use. Even the instrumentation had to be surmised from Monteverdi's other works as well as the writings from other composers of the time.

Aside from stringing the catgut on the usual violins, these musicians will be playing harpsichords, a specialized viola de gamba and long-necked lutes known as theorbos. The opera's smaller orchestra will be raised out of the pit so that audience can see these revived instruments in action. "I think that's what people will really notice, the fact that the … sound scale is a bit softer than when you've got a 60-piece orchestra," Fallis says.

Monteverdi was the first great opera composer, and Poppea happens to be the first known opera based on a historical figure. What also makes this show unique is that the bad guys win: The heartless Nero banishes his blameless wife, Ottavia, from Rome in favor of the scheming courtesan Poppea. Audiences of Monteverdi's day, of course, would have known that Nero grows bored of Poppea and has her executed. They would also have known that Nero commits suicide a few years later, so they both get their comeuppance.

But fear not. Historical though it may be, Poppea boasts the usual steamy libretto. That's important, since Monteverdi felt that a composer's main responsibility was to portray human feelings. "The great laments of Ottavia when she's banished … the jealousy that Ottone feels or the almost petulant temper tantrums that Nero has to throw once in a while….Opera in the beginning was designed [to] explore this range of human emotion," Fallis says.

For this reason, the music attempts to mimic the rhythms of human speech, which is part of the appeal of baroque instruments. They're flexible, allowing a swift change in tempo from moment to moment. The acting style is also much more linked to the text, with gestures accenting specific words to express emotions. In the end, all the old instruments and staging are there to get a gut reaction from the audience. And getting a gut reaction is what Monteverdi excelled at.

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Dylan Otto Krider