It was a brilliant idea, and must have required a managerial tour de force, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music to bring together the three surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi in productions from Amsterdam, Aix-en-Provence, and Chicago, dating from 1993, 2000, and 2001 respectively. Attending all three in a row was a wonderful experience, vertiginous even for the seasoned opera-goer, and would have been so even if the three productions had not been so very different.

The works themselves belong to two early phases of operatic history, the famous “birth of opera” in the late Renaissance courts of Northern Italy and then the weaning of opera from court life, phases separated by thirty years and a total change of social milieu, but held together—and this makes the story so satisfying—by the same great composer. Opera was developed by a revisionist and highly vocal group of Florentine courtiers, scholars, and singers, the outgrowth of a long tradition of princely entertainments, the masque-like intermedi. It was only institutionalized much later, when the great families of Venice transformed it into a potent draw for the free city’s especially free carnival season. To say that the story is held together by Monteverdi is no historical abstraction, for the third of the Venetian commercial theaters that went over to opera, the Teatro San Moisè, owned by the Zane family, marked its new course in 1640 by reviving his Arianna, composed for the Gonzaga court of Mantua in 1608.1

This BAM could not give us, for the music of Arianna has disappeared except for its hit number, Ariadne’s lament, which was widely copied and published in various forms, and said to be in the library of every mid-century music-lover. In any case, the Arianna revival must have been a very strange occasion, for toddler opera was quite unlike the newborn babe. Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607, the masterpiece of early court opera, casts the Orpheus myth into eight simple scenes (by my count) with minimal dialogue. Orpheus remains on stage almost continuously, with the other characters as walk-ons who never appear in more than a single scene, except Eurydice, who appears in two scenes and sings for less than two minutes. The librettos of its Venetian counterparts Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, both first performed in Venetian theaters, are long, elaborately plotted plays drawn from epic or history, in which we follow more than a dozen characters through nearly two dozen scenes. Early court opera behaves much of the time less like a drama than like a masque or a ritual. Venetian opera was already racing on what Jane Glover has called “the ferocious treadmill of operatic showbusiness.”2

Ritorno, in fact, is quite a show. Monteverdi had moved from Mantua in 1613 to become maestro di capella at San Marco, and little is known about any operas he wrote or may have written in the interim. Certainly none was conceived under such a spotlight, and in this work (also produced in 1640) by the seventy-three-year-old composer one senses the release of operatic energies that have been bottled up for a long time. There are scenes of high pathos, low comedy, dalliance, vengeance, slaughter, and stupendous parlays between gods in the machines. There are vocal pyrotechnics and a stream of catchy little songs. Minerva, who masterminds the action, is also the show-stopper, turning up again and again on various machines in various guises and disguises: a disingenuous shepherd boy on the coast of Ithaca, a conjuror making Ulysses over as an old beggar, Telemachus’ charioteer on the way home from Sparta, the architect of the plan to kill the suitors—even more sanguinary in Minerva’s foretelling than in the event, over which she presides in maesta—and finally Ulysses’ advocate at the court of Jove. The only well-known operatic extravaganza like Ritorno that I can think of is The Magic Flute, though Ritorno has a much harder edge.

The success of all this depended on Monteverdi’s music, of course, and Ritorno positively flaunts his musical resources, two in particular. One is the affective recitative style of Ariadne’s lament, still enormously powerful today, especially if you follow it word by word, in Italian. The other is a certain kind of melody, which I will attempt to characterize in a moment. (Supertitles are hardly adequate for the recitative, and hardly necessary for the melodies.) After starting with a lament in recitative for Penelope that occupies an entire scene, the opera finds time for extensive solo numbers in much the same style for Ulysses, Telemachus, Minerva, and even Penelope’s maid Melanto. The series is capped by an astonishing parody lament for the comic character Iro—a suicide scene which, unlike Papageno’s in The Magic Flute, does not have a happy ending.

The next scene after the opera’s magnificent opening lament, equally static, has Melanto and her boyfriend making love, and now affective recitative gives way to almost continuous melody. Melanto belongs in the opera as a foil to Penelope, and later she will do what maids and nurses always do in these situations, urge her mistress to console herself with a lover. Yet she does not so much as mention Penelope here.3 Whereas Penelope’s scene drags on, symbolizing her endless waiting and the constancy that will sustain her through the drama to come, Melanto’s goes far beyond dramatic necessities. Its scattershot of little songs and duos feels like a manifesto, the display of an old master’s musical fecundity. Ulysses’ return to his homeland was also Monteverdi’s return to the theater.4


Little songs and duos: Venetian operas are teeming with these. They are short and gay and move in clear, delicately balanced phrases, mostly in triple meter. While sometimes they run to several stanzas, punctuated by brief instrumental passages, sometimes they emerge seamlessly out of the recitative and disappear almost before one can take them in. This—to say nothing of the lack of instrumental accompaniment—can be puzzling to audiences used to the melodic opulence of Handel, Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. Monteverdi’s melodies tickle the ear but do not stick, as it were, to the ribs.

What do they do for the drama? There was already at the time much agonizing about the proper place for song in musical drama, that is, when the use of song could be justified dramatically. A famous bit of musico-dramatic strategy shows how sensitive one composer could be to this. After Penelope has launched the opera with her affective recitative—musically heightened speech unconstrained by orchestral backing—hours go by before she breaks into melody—at the moment, of course, when she acknowledges the beggar as her husband. Song should be reserved for heightened mental conditions—Penelope’s moment of rapture here, and elsewhere madness, anger, laughter, sexual transport, and indeed plain ebullience, which seems to be a natural state for the shepherd Eumete (a gentle parody of the Arcadian staples of court opera, it seems. Homer’s Eumaios was a swineherd).

And the natural state of the heroine of L’incoronazione di Poppea is in heat. Poppea, the most single-minded seductress in all of opera, slips in and out of recitative and melody the way she slips in and out of her Roman lingerie. For an opera composer to find characters drawn to affective recitative was not hard—the empress Ottavia in Poppea, deserted and then banished by Nero, serves as well as Penelope. It was much harder to find characters driven to song. Nero and Poppea are such characters. In Poppea, as in certain operas of later years—Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande, The Bartered Bride—one feels that the composer has found his ideal subject matter. He has found the ideal dramatis personae to bring out his best musical powers.

The Coronation of Poppea is first of all a scandal,” wrote a surprised drama critic when this opera was first becoming known again. “It is also a masterpiece in the musical transformation of drama, a conventional ‘triumph of love’ allegory with flashes of profundity, and a garland of Monteverdi’s most inventive pieces. But its matter is scandal…”5—the scandal of female eroticism triumphing over reason, morality, and empire.

The dramaturgy supporting this subversive theme is as involuted and sophisticated as that of Ritorno is transparent. The librettist, Giovanni Francesco Busenello, who also wrote novels, discourses, and even a patriotic epic, built his plot on shifting sands, pitting stability against instability. Scene after scene for Nero and Poppea confirms the erotic engagement that already precedes the action—like Der Rosenkavalier, Poppea begins on a post-coital morning—and will remain unchecked at the end. It is true that some of these scenes advance the plot—Poppea persuading Nero with ridiculous ease to do away with the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who disapproves of their affair; Poppea reminding Nero of what he already knows, that Ottavia’s treachery sanctions him to get her out of the way too—but it is hard for this part of the plot, given its foregone conclusion, to compete for attention with the vivid lovemaking on view. The ravishing duet “Pur ti miro” (“I Behold Thee”) that concludes the opera, with its baby-talk text and its continuous chain of musical caresses, is simply dropped in, an emblem of the eternity of sexual ardor. This final scene has no dramatic context and contains not a word of recitative.6

Busenello deemed sex the only constant in a world (indeed a cosmos) dangerously in flux. All the other characters change over the course of the action (none does in Ritorno, with the clearly necessary exception of Penelope). Seneca opposes Nero and accepts his death sentence with nobility and Stoic gravitas; yet when we first hear of him he is being abused as a windbag and a hypocrite by “the street,” represented by a pair of Nero’s guards, and when we first meet him he is delivering a perfectly fatuous speech of supposed consolation to Ottavia—as she herself remarks briskly, before turning him over to her page for another round of abuse, this time to his face. The music of the speech is itself fatuous, a travesty of Monteverdi’s and indeed Seneca’s normal mode of expression.7


Of the disputants in the opera’s prologue, Fortune, Virtue, and Love, only Love remains at the end to crow ex machina. Virtue never shows her face again after her delegate Seneca dies and the moral bottom drops out of the opera entirely. Ottavia, originally so pathetic, forces Ottone into a plot to kill his former love Poppea; Ottone, originally disconsolate, pretends to love Drusilla, originally a mere ingenue, until she eagerly collaborates in his murder attempt. Even the page changes, from a spiteful loudmouth to a Cherubino figure flirting with an unnamed girl. The macabre edge to this lovely little scene, which follows directly after Seneca’s suicide, is honed by its very abstractness. The death of virtue announces an initiation into love.

Following this scene comes a fully explicit reaction to Seneca’s death and all it means. “Now that Seneca is dead,” says Nero, “let us sing,” and he delivers a rapturous song about Poppea, accompanied or rather prompted by Lucano, the poet Lucan. (Nero, we remember, was famous for his music.) Their brilliant duet sends homoerotic signals hard to miss. The death of virtue announces an initiation into unnatural love, for which Nero was also famous.


Pierre Audi, the director of the Dutch National Opera’s Poppea, does not underplay Nero’s apparent orgasm with Lucan, though their scene is vitiated by dry singing and by staging that I found wooden here as elsewhere in the production. What he underplays is the heterosexual action between Nero and Poppea. Nero has trouble getting his hands on Poppea all evening, either because she holds him off or because of clearly mimed neurotic withdrawal.

There is a real idea here, one that is more conventionally “dramatic” than my own more voyeuristic reading—Nero only gets what he wants over the course of the action, rather than before it starts—and up to a point support for it can be found in the libretto. But not, I think, in the music. Not, certainly, in “Pur ti miro”—where Audi places Nero and Poppea thirty feet apart singing the words “Only gaze on you to desire you, only caress you to consume you, I am yours, you are mine,” and so on, directly out to the audience. Even when he has moved them shoulder to shoulder there is never a kiss, embrace, or even eye contact. Shared words like these, once they are entwined by Monteverdi’s music, signal erotic engagement as clearly as do the moans of “Oh God, oh God, oh God”—carved out of the libretto text by the composer, and so suggestively set to music—in the Nero-Lucan scene.8

Characters in this production are isolated and estranged. Ottone and Drusilla declare their love back to back, ten feet apart. The two nurses (Poppea’s and Ottavia’s) are suppressed or suffocated by hyperbolical costumes. Audi’s concept does, however, put an interesting construction on one of the opera’s most memorable scenes, in which Seneca tells of his impending suicide and his Stoic welcome of death as a release. The opera’s ambivalence about Seneca, and about Virtue by way of Seneca, is underlined by the chorus of Famigliari that addresses him; “famigliari” may be taken to mean Seneca’s students, students who choose this moment to say exactly what they think of their master’s teaching. We would not welcome death, they say, and then go on at some length about life’s pleasures—in music, incidentally, that recalls the hero of Orfeo when, early in that opera, he is congratulating himself for winning Eurydice. As the Famigliari sing and stare in different directions, once again widely separated on the stage, Seneca goes to his bath without support or sympathy. I found this unsentimental reading of the scene quite convincing.

In spite of its ambivalences and back currents, or perhaps because of them, I would guess that Poppea presents fewer problems to a director today than does Ritorno. Penelope’s suitors, who dominate three scenes, are one problem. Getting them killed on stage by the disguised Ulysses is the least of it; from the start in this opera they inhabit a third plane of being, stick figures distinct from the humans and the gods. The original audience would have found them comical; the brief trios that Monteverdi wrote for the three suitors evoke a type of Venetian carnival song, the giustiniana, sung by three old men eager for sex without the capacity to do much about it. (This genre found its way to England as the Freemen’s Song—probably a corruption of Three Men’s Song: “We be soldiers three/Pardonnez-moi, je vous en prie,” and the like.) To accommodate the suitors to a contemporary sense of humor for any length of time is hard, perhaps impossible.

Another problem is the time it takes for Penelope to acknowledge Ulysses, after he kills the suitors. In the opera’s libretto, 250 lines of the Odyssey are drawn out over five scenes. The director, Adrian Noble—he has just stepped down as head of the Royal Shakespeare Company—cuts one substantive scene for Penelope and Melanto and alters the weight of two others. These are a short solo scene for Penelope’s nurse Ericlea and a spectacular gathering of the gods. When Ericlea debates whether or not to tell her mistress about the scar she has recognized while giving Ulysses his bath, Noble presents her as really anxious, rather than just befuddled and silly; the idea is evidently to make this traditional comic nurse scene truly consequential for the drama. Noble has Minerva gesticulating behind Ericlea (not the only such intervention).

In the dim lighting this little gem of a scene fails to glisten, however, and I do not get the idea behind Noble’s big scene of the gods. This starts just as dimly and ends unimpressively, as the carpet-sized cloud which bore Jove down from heaven eases him all the way down to a pile of cushions on the palace floor (see illustration on page 36).9Still, Ritorno lives on sentiment, not comedy or spectacle, and this is the strength to which this handsome, graceful, subtle, and already well-traveled production plays. Noble underlines very beautifully the parallel between the reunions which bring Acts I and II to their conclusion.10 Well before the inevitable blissful duets at the moments of recognition, Ulysses can’t check an involuntary move toward Telemachus even while still disguised as the beggar, and subtle body language from Penelope in face of the beggar betrays unacknowledged feelings that will finally burst out—and burst into song. Monteverdi points up the large dramatic rhythm by the smallest of melodies at the Act I curtain, directly after the duet between the two men. “Vanne alle madre,” Ulysses says to the plot, as well as to Telemachus, “go to your mother”: a (diatonic) scale up, a scale down, the same scale up again—almost shockingly simple, this, as a musical evocation of tenderness, hope, and dramatic anticipation. Monteverdi’s little songs can move us as much as his affective recitative.

At a time when complaints are commonplace about the dearth of adequate singers for the standard operatic repertory, it is amazing how many singers there are nowadays attuned to older opera, singers who look very well and can act and even turn an occasional somersault. William Christie led a superb cast in Ritorno; the seriousness, elegance, and continuity of his work—in Les Arts Florissants he has one of the few organizations devoted to the performance of old operas, many of which he has brought to BAM—make him one of the great names in music today. Jane Glover, whose involvement with early opera goes back to a classic production of Orfeo in the 1970s, and who now adds the Chicago Opera Theater to her Glimmerglass and New York City Opera engagements, can seldom have had the opportunity of working with so fine a singer in so large a role as the English tenor Laurence Dale. Looking back on the three operas in the BAM Monteverdi Cycle, while Ritorno was without question the most satisfying as a whole, as a single portrayal Dale’s Orpheus was in a league of its own.

His is a truly searing performance, as impressive for its stylishness as for its passion. When Orpheus sings what Monteverdi probably thought of as an Orphic hymn to the underworld, “Possente Spirto,” composed in a specially ornate musical style, one almost hears the lyre of Apollo stuccoed onto the walls of BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, down the street, resounding in the smaller Harvey Theater. Orpheus completely dominates his opera, and by omitting intermissions and running the acts together rapidly, the director Diane Paulus achieves a near-continuous flood of emotionality such as we are rarely treated to in performances today. Glover is quoted in the program as saying that

throughout rehearsals everybody—singers, instrumentalists, production team—will contribute. Each note or chord will have some decision made about it. Should it be short or long, loud or soft, attacked or stroked…? Above all, after making these decisions, how can we keep them alive? We must retain that very spontaneity which marked Monteverdi’s response to the text….

And there can be no doubt that music of this kind—music of extreme rhythmic flexibility, responsive to every particular word or syllable—depends crucially on synergy between singer and conductor. Jane Glover’s hand is wonderfully sure and sensitive.

Of course the role of Orpheus is far from continuous; there are all sorts of episodes and diversions. But these are treated so light-heartedly in this production, while Laurence Dale on the contrary sings with such serious intensity, that one leaves the theater reeling with the impression of stacked laments—laments when Orpheus hears of Eurydice’s death, finds himself abandoned by Hope (Speranza), sees his great plea to the underworld failing, looks back and loses Eurydice, returns to the glades of Thrace and sets them echoing with his misery. These laments indeed echo over the years, in the fully developed affective recitative of Penelope and Ottavia.

Orfeo begins and ends like a masque or ritual. Orpheus’ wedding is celebrated by nymphs and shepherds singing solos, duos, trios, and madrigal choruses. Paulus replaces these carefree Arcadians with a modern wedding party whose costumes (high-fashion evening dress), props (champagne flutes, animal masks), and manic routines yield one dazzling stage picture after another. Swept away by the sheer élan of all this, I was uncharacteristically tolerant of the tuning out of Music, the opera’s prologue, and the toning down of the Messenger recounting the death of Eurydice in Act II. (Monteverdi gives “gentle Silvia,” as the libretto calls this nymph, a predilection for the limelight.) But in Acts III and IV, which take place in Hades, the little groups of revelers seem more than a little lost; and in Act V, with Orpheus returned to Thrace, Paulus can’t resist the temptation to bring them all back on again. They stand very still and they look very sad. They intrude all the same. Orpheus (or Guarini’s Silvio, or Sidney’s Philisides) is never more alone, or should be, than when he is communing with his echo.

One of the animal masks worn by the revelers looked like Mickey Mouse. I began to fancy I was watching a movie with one real-life, near-tragic character surrounded by a whole lot of animated ones—two planes of being, increasingly out of sync with each other. The true Disney touch came with the entrance or apparition of Eurydice, at the final curtain, in a big burst of white petals.

This Issue

June 13, 2002