Some doubts revolve around the musical drama heard in Venice in the winter of 1642-43. What did it sound like, on what instruments? Who was the composer — if not Monteverdi (as is generally but not unanimously believed), what unnamed figure of comparable talent? Two certainties remain. Whatever its provenance, “The Coronation of Poppea” is an extraordinary musical drama, and the current production — from Pierre Audi’s Netherlands Opera does it full honor. Mark it down as one of the best nights at the opera to hit town since — well, since the last Monteverdi opera from the Netherlands Opera, “The Return of Ulysses” in 1997.
No operas before “Poppea” dealt with actual historic characters; few operas before or since have had its two main characters — the bloody-handed Emperor Nero and his power-hungry paramour Poppea — carry on light-hearted chat about how it was for them last night.
Monteverdi’s fragmentary score may have required an updater’s hand to fit it to the needs of Harry Bicket’s excellent pseudo-baroque pit orchestra. But what comes through is the white heat of innovation, the amazing visions of Monteverdi (or whoever) in making the musical modes of the day (especially the intricate style of the contrapuntal madrigal) serve the purpose of the newly invented opera. That striving for newness, against a background of the very old, is what makes the four hours of “Poppea” whiz by at the Chandler Pavilion.
That, and the work of a sublime cast. It’s high time American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham had her local debut. It could have been in Rossini or Offenbach, at which she is also phenomenally good; Poppea brought out the same rich creaminess but a fierce musicianship as well.
Kurt Streit, as Nero, managed a fine, nasty contrast. German basso Reinhard Hagen made an exceptional debut as the tragic Seneca; he would be worth hearing as his Wagnerian namesake.
Memories of the 1997 “Ulysses” also are stirred in Michael Simon’s set designs, all sharp edges and geometry stunningly highlighted by the bursts of flame that are a Pierre Audi trademark.
Just the look of the orchestra, with its long-necked theorbos grazing the stage like a gaggle of esurient ostriches, and the enticing purr of the small portative organ are among the evening’s not-at-all lesser pleasures.