Seeking shelter from the madness of America in 2018? Get thee to an Opera House.
L’incoronazione di Poppea(‘The Coronation of Poppaea’) is an Italian opera, in three acts-set in Rome in the year 65 AD. The Opera was written by Claudio Monteverdi, with a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1643 carnival season. This makes Poppaea one of the earliest ever operas.
The main characters include Nero, the Roman emperor; Poppea, his lover; Otho, Poppea’s fiancé; Drusilla, who is in love with Otho; and Octavia. “Nero’s wife. soprano Sarah Shafer lends her “luminous voice” to the role of Poppea alongside the “vocally brilliant” countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Emperor Nero,” (The New York Times).
The program notes compress the story as follows: “Abandoning her old lover, Poppea only has eyes for Emperor Nero…and his crown. Ottavia, Nero’s wife and empress, crafts elaborate schemes and issues dire threats to hold onto her husband. But when the gods are on Poppea’s side, how can she lose? Love might conquer all, but it leaves a trail of destruction.”
Not to be arrogant, but I can compress this fine summation even further: “Love greed murder, heartbreak.”
In any event, there’s actually no need to get tied up in the libretto details as, to my neophyte tastes, the real star of this show is the small orchestra accompanying the CO. The orchestra, who fills the small pit in the SCPAs Corbet Theater ( a wonderful modern theater with a capacity of 750), is composed of members of the early music ensemble Catacoustic Consort which is buttressed by members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in realizing Monteverdi’s wonderful score. The score is also played largely on period pieces.
To see these instruments, as played by Catacoustic Consort a 501c 3 nonprofit chamber music group specializing in music of the Renaissance and Baroque with period instruments, is worth the price of admission alone. Catacoustic, which is in its 17th season, and is dedicated to the early music community in the greater Cincinnati area, has performed throughout Belgium, England, Ireland, Colombia, Canada, and the U.S.
The expanded Catacoustic Orchestra is a fine fit for the unique Poppae score given that:
“The music in this opera is played in a creative and improvisatory manner that is surprisingly similar to jazz. The composer provides the material for the solo voices, and only a skeletal bass line for the accompanying instruments remains. Instruments such as the theorbo, harpsichord, harp, Baroque guitar, and lirone are expected to know how to play the correct chords according to certain theoretical rules of harmony. This practice, called basso continuo or simply continuo, was a very common way of playing music in the Baroque period.
Got that? Now, wanna really impress your date? Bone up on this primer (stolen from the Catacoustic blog) of Baroque instruments you’ll be seeing and hearing at the show. For a complete description, see the Catacoustic website.
The viola da gamba was one of the predominant instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque in Western Europe. “Viola da gamba” (or viol) literally means viola of the leg. It is a fretted instrument with five to seven strings and is played with an underhand bow grip. The viola da gamba is a family of instruments with ranges that correspond to the human voice: treble, tenor, and bass. It is more closely related to a lute or guitar than a cello. So for Christ sake, don’t make any cello illusions in the refreshment or restroom lines during intermission.
The lirone (pronounced lee-roh-nay) it is the “bowed string instrument that is held like a cello, but it has anywhere from nine to fourteen strings. It has a flat bridge and plays chords of three or four strings at a time. The lirone was used to highlight emotional peaks in music and was considered ideal for dramatic laments.” (which is fortunate given that the Italians in these operas seem to do little but lament and moan (sorry grandma)).
In 17th-century Italy, the bent-neck lute was replaced by the theorbo (pronounced thee-ohr-boe). The bass strings were mounted on an extension, giving them nearly twice the string length of the treble strings. Naturally, this gave the bass more strength and volume. The purpose of the theorbo is to reinforce the bass, whereas the purpose of the lirone is to enrich the harmonies. The composer Giulio Caccini (yes, he’s on the test) said that the theorbo was the perfect instrument to accompany the voice.
The harpsichord almost needs no introduction. It is a keyboard instrument with strings that are plucked by plectra, as compared to the piano, where the strings are hit by hammers. The harpsichord was a common keyboard instrument in the Renaissance and Baroque periods until the 18th century introduction of the piano, when it died out. Both harpsichords used in Poppea are made by James Campbell, who lives in Newport, Kentucky.
Performances, JUNE 21, 23, 26 & 28 | 7:30 P.M. JULY 1 | 3:00 P.M, in SCPA’S CORBETT THEATER
Sung in Italian with projected translation; Performance length: 2 hours and 30 minutes.