Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Now Playing: The Birth of Opera

Article originally appeared in EMAg (Early Music America) as a preview of the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival.

Opera didn’t exist in 1567, the year of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth. It was the age of the madrigal, and while vocal composition had grown more florid and Renaissance composers had experimented with theatrical contexts for music, no one had combined text, music, and theater into a consummate whole. Yet by 1643, the year Monteverdi died, Venetian opera houses were in full swing premiering works by Francesco Cavalli, Benedetto Ferrari, and Monteverdi himself for paying audiences. This represented a musical and cultural transformation in which the old master played no small part, having written five groundbreaking operas across the earliest decades of the genre.

Three of Monteverdi’s operas survive, and the Boston Early Music Festival will present them all in a single week in June. The earliest is L’Orfeo, the quintessential 17th-century setting of the Orpheus myth, which has inspired musicians throughout history. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria tells the story of Ulysses’s return to Ithaca and his reunion with Penelope, and finally comes L’incoronazione di Poppea, which dramatizes Poppea’s ruthless rise from Nero’s mistress to empress of Rome—and which was the first opera based on a historical subject.

As led by co-artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, music director Robert Mealy, and stage director Gilbert Blin, Poppea and L’Orfeo will be revivals of BEMF productions from 2009 and 2012, respectively, while Ulisse will be offered in a new staging as the festival’s centerpiece. As far as anyone involved is aware, this will be the first time the three Monteverdi operas have ever been presented together by a single artistic team.

The common leadership promises to give the productions a striking unity of vision. Modern audiences, for the most part, expect these operas to be performed on period instruments, but stagings can range from the historically suggestive to the abstract to thoroughly modern Monteverdi. BEMF, however, is committed to period productions, and in Blin the festival has a director who approaches theater in a manner akin to how its performers approach music.

“As a historically informed stage director, I take great interest and great excitement in trying to accumulate as much information as possible about the piece,” Blin said by phone from his home in Amsterdam, “and from this background try to enlarge the scope to integrate the reality of the cultural context of the piece.”


In the case of the Monteverdi operas, there actually are two different contexts to consider. The first is the ducal palace of Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, where Monteverdi was employed for the first part of his career and where L’Orfeo had its premiere in 1607 before a private audience of intellectuals and noblemen. The second is Venice, where Ulisse and Poppea made their debuts in the early 1640s in public theaters. The BEMF productions will evoke these historical frames partly by the choice of venues: L’Orfeo will be performed as a chamber opera on the stage of Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory—a palatial venue for classical music —while the Venetian operas will be staged down the street at the Boston University Theatre, which is roughly the modern equivalent of a 17th-century opera houses in size, technical capability, and civic role.

Those who attend all three operas will be offered not only a glimpse into the worlds of Orpheus, Ulysses, and Poppea, but also a point of entry into Monteverdi’s Italy. It was there that the young composer helped to establish opera with L’Orfeo and later, as an old man, revolutionized the genre with Ulisse and Poppea. “By presenting the three operas together, we hope to give the real scope of the work of Monteverdi,” Blin said. “It’s a fantastique research project, in a way, but also has the same value to us as if you go to Bayreuth and see some Wagner operas or go to La Scala and see some Verdi.”

Gathering a Creative Team

BEMF, indeed, has established itself as an American mecca for baroque opera. Since 1981, the organization has staged a centerpiece production at its biennial festival, and O’Dette and Stubbs have helmed the musical side of things as co-artistic directors and continuo players since 1997. (Their recording of Marc Antoine-Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, a version of the Orpheus legend from the 1680s, won BEMF its first Grammy this year in the category Best Opera Recording.)

Blin, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the BEMF team. He studied theater history and stage direction at the Sorbonne in Paris and by the late ’90s established himself in Europe as a director specializing in 17th- and 18th-century opera. When he first came to the attention of BEMF, however, he was simply an audience member.

“We met him in 1999, when we brought our production of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante to Utrecht and in a question and answer with the audience there was this bald French guy asking all kinds of penetrating and interesting questions,” Stubbs said in a phone interview from Seattle. “So after the Q and A we went on talking with him and found out he was a stage director.” Blin’s first BEMF production was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Thésee in 2001. After returning for Lully’s Psychéin 2007, he was appointed BEMF’s first stage director in residence. “At that point, he had progressed in his own mind and career and culture to think ‘I’m ready to do anything you guys want to do,’” Stubbs said.

Blin’s approach balances detailed research with practical concerns. “My work starts early on as a scholar and historian—to gather information about the way the piece was performed on the opening night, the very first time,” he said. “I try to do that and then go back to the usual opera production system, which is dealing with all your partners and designers and technical managers to shape a production which is dramatically alive and up to the standards of an opera production of today.”

Although no props or images survive from the Mantuan or Venetian productions, more is known about the original Monteverdi performances than one might think. “We know a lot about theOrfeo staging,” said Ellen Rosand, a musicologist and professor emeritus at Yale University, who will give pre-opera talks at the festival. “We know where it was staged. There are treatises that describe the way opera was produced—same thing with the later operas. We have stage designs, we have descriptions, and a lot of that has been opened up and researched.” Still, Rosand cautions against overstating the degree of historic accuracy possible in a modern production of Monteverdi. “They claim it’s historically informed, and probably it is in many respects, but the staging itself I don’t think can qualify.”

While the BEMF sets and costumes are original designs with some basis in historic documents and images, no one claims they exactly recreate what was seen on stage in the 17th-century. “We make great use of pictures and emails, and all the modern technology,” said Blin, “and create a kind of bank of references which are taken from museum collections, books, libraries, and everything possible, and try to narrow down a certain aesthetic which we feel is relevant to the piece.”

For Stubbs, period staging offers a path to dramatic comprehension that parallels and complements the musical revelations that come through period instruments. “There are ways in which simply working with the right tools opens the door to direct understanding,” he said. “It’s not like you can go to the catalog and figure out exactly how they staged it, but once you’ve taken onboard those principles of the use of the theater in the same way you take on those in the use of the orchestra, certain things become crystal clear.”

While performers and musicologists can debate historic accuracy down to the finest details, sometimes the large-scale picture of a modern production echoes the past in surprising ways. BEMF, for instance, is using overlapping casts for the three Monteverdi operas, which is reminiscent of how the Mantuan court and the Venice theaters employed musicians.

When planning the trilogy, Blin, Stubbs, and O’Dette first drew up a general roster of singers they wanted to work with and only assigned specific roles as a second step. “When we decided to do this trilogy, our first thinking was to secure a company of Monteverdian singers,” Blin said. “Because we are doing three pieces, we have been gathering around thirty performers and singers, and some of them are only doing one role, others are doing two roles, and even a few are working in three productions. So it’s very comparable to the way people were creating this type of music either in the private court of Mantua, where [Monteverdi] had at his disposal the

musicians of the court, and also much later in Venice, where opera was in fact made with a company of singers and actors who were often contracted for the season.”

Rosand agrees that the original productions of Poppea and Ulisse shared some of the same singers, though she couches her suspicion with academic caution. “I think some of the cast was the same, some of the roles were conceived for the same singers,” she said. “We don’t really know the full story about the cast, but I think it’s likely that they shared a number of people.”

BEMF has a tradition of hiring many of the same singers year after year, and the directors and cast now have an easy familiarity behind the scenes. Soprano Amanda Forsythe, for instance, has appeared in every festival opera since 2007. This year, she will sing the title role in Poppea and appear in a small role in Ulisse. She knows just what to expect from Blin during the preparation process.

“Gilbert always begins the first rehearsal with a well-researched presentation of the piece and its place in history,” Forsythe wrote by email. “We learn about art and politics from the time period of the first performance, and how the audiences of the times would have understood the comic, tragic, and historical elements of the opera.”

Aside from Blin’s commitment to research, however, cast members also highlight the expressive immediacy of his theatrical work. “Some baroque opera has a reputation for being static and stiff, but I’ve never felt that way because Gilbert has this way of bringing raw, true emotion to these older pieces,” said soprano Teresa Wakim, who has worked in many BEMF productions and is returning for L’Orfeo and Poppea. “You wouldn’t believe how often in rehearsal we are just all crying on stage. He gets to you that way.”

Most of the BEMF singers are turning up in Boston in mid-May, when work on Ulisse and Poppea begins. The company will move into Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, where Blin and Stubbs will lead rehearsals for Ulisse in one room while O’Dette rehearses Poppea in another.

Summoning Orpheus

Work on L’Orfeo will begin later, as it is the simplest of the three productions and the more recent of the two revivals. Nonetheless, it is still a daunting piece to perform because of its iconic status and symbolic resonance in the world of music at large.

Monteverdi wrote the work for the carnival season in Mantua, where it received at least two performances in 1607. It was published in Venice in 1609 and may have received performances in Salzburg in the following decade. The composer worked from a libretto by Alessandro Striggio, a diplomat in the service of Gonzaga’s court. By the second revision, the text incorporated a happy ending for Orpheus.

Unlike the later Venetian operas, in which the drama is musically driven by recitative and continuo, L’Orfeo is rich in melodic text-painting and makes use of a large and colorful orchestra. Through rustic dances, soaring songs, and ensemble numbers in madrigal style, the music illustrates the setting, making physical scenery practically unnecessary. Because of this, the opera lends itself to recording, anthologization, and reinterpretation, and so it has assumed canonic status that Poppea and Ulisse have not quite matched.

“We all remember our first Orfeo,” said Blin. “When you’re working on an emblematic masterpiece like that, and also one meaningful for each member of the audience, you are at risk to challenge the listener or the viewer, because you can’t reproduce what was relevant to them the first time or reproduce the first memory of the piece.”

In Boston, the period staging offers an approach that strips away layers of calcified familiarity. “What we try to do is go to the core of what is relevant to us in Orfeo and understand why this piece is touching for so long for the listener and the viewer,” Blin said. “So it’s trying to identify what was meaningful to Monteverdi and Striggio when they decided to do the story this way, with the different ending and so forth. My ambition is to show to the audience a piece that is very fresh, very simple, and absolutely straight on.”

Blin’s L’Orfeo places the orchestra on the stage of Jordan Hall. The singers perform both in front of the ensemble and on a series of raised platforms toward the rear of the stage. There are costumes and props but no scenery. Rows of small electric bulbs line the front of the stage and the margins of the platforms, giving the impression of candlelight.

The mythological figure of Orpheus, of course, is suffused with symbolism: he represents the ideal union of poetry and music. The fact that Monteverdi and Striggio chose to adapt this myth suggests their artistic aims were intentional. And they succeeded in creating a modern meeting of poetry and music in a large dramatic form, even if the full spectacle of the theater had not yet entered into the operatic equation.

The Venetian Operas

After several years of professional difficulty in the Mantuan court, Monteverdi secured a new job in charge of music at San Marco in Venice in 1613. He spent the following decades in the service of the church, although he still accepted secular commissions on a freelance basis.

Venice, meanwhile, developed a flourishing theatrical scene. Patricians built theaters, which they rented to impresarios, who in turn contracted actors and singers. Younger composers like Cavalli and Ferrari wrote operas for these new venues, and the new productions emphasized spectacle and scenery. Monteverdi continued to work at San Marco and enjoy a reputation as a venerable master. His contemporaries wondered when he might come forward and write an opera of his own in the new style.

As it turned out, his first foray into the new world of Venetian theater was a revival of an opera from his Mantuan years: L’Arianna, which is now lost to history. But in the last years of his life, he would write two operas in quick succession: Ulisse around 1639 and Poppea in 1643.

“You can think of them as two sides of the coin, and there are many similarities between them,” said musicologist Rosand. “One was about sacred love and the other was about profane love, in a way. It would be nice to think of a production of Poppea and Ulisse that had the other in mind.”

Which is precisely what BEMF will offer: the two late operas will be staged together at the Boston University Theatre on the same overall set. The front of the stage will be framed with columns suggesting a 17th-century opera house. Several feet back will be steps leading up to a raised portion of the stage, where backdrops will hang and specific pieces of scenery will slide in and out from the wings.

Ulisse is an interesting piece because it’s about the end of a story,” said Blin. “It is the story of the end of a man who has been doing a lot of good things, but also some bad things—someone who is coming back to home from war. The world has changed while he was away, he has difficulty to readjust, and he can only readjust through the love of his son and wife. So it is a very modern story. It’s not about politics. It’s about domestic affairs, and the fact that it’s a king is almost irrelevant.”

Poppea, on the other hand, is all about politics and corruption. “It’s an exposé of the perversion of Rome, which I think some Venetians read as implicit praise of Venice, because there was always a Rome-Venice comparison,” Rosand said. “A lot of the audience, especially the upper class, would come away with ‘that would never happen in Venice.’” The Republic of Venice was known for its praiseworthy government structure: a stable oligarchy designed to eliminate bribery and corruption. In this light, Poppea can be understood either as a smug civic boast or a veiled warning against decay.

It could be said that Monteverdi covered the gamut of operatic territory—from mythic heroism to crass degeneracy—in these two late works. When you consider L’Orfeo as well, a picture takes shape of a prescient composer who not only launched a genre, but also anticipated themes that would permeate the tradition in the centuries that followed.

“He’s really absolutely fundamental to the whole field of opera,” said Stubbs. “He not only presented that breakthrough at the beginning of his career, but did it again at the end of his late career in the 1640s. Orfeo remains top of the genre at the very beginning of opera, and Poppeaand Ulisse stand at the top of the invention of opera as something for a paying public.”

Rosand compares Monteverdi’s oversized importance to younger colleagues like Cavalli and Ferrari. “He was a madrigalist first. That is the significant thing,” she said. “He had dealt with a lot of music-text issues and drama and had a different background from all these other guys. He had his roots in the Renaissance, and that’s what explains the uniqueness of the late works.”

Blin expresses a more personal attachment to Monteverdi: “You get hooked by this music and this huge intellect and depth in the man himself and all that we know of him from his music and letters, and you just feel a lucky man to have a friend like that.”

In June, festivalgoers will have the chance to renew their own friendships with the great composer through Blin’s three productions. Using both historic research and pure dramatic intuition, the director is aiming to put the audience in touch—as directly as possible—with the composer and his music. For Blin and his BEMF colleagues, that’s the point of a period production.

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer