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"Pur ti miro, pur ti godo," Monteverdi's finest opera: Poppea

"I gaze upon you, I desire you" A source of both fascination and difficulty; Monteverdi's final work is the linchpin of Early Music.

Hello Adam Pearl, music director of The Coronation of Poppea! We are so thrilled to have you returning to us after conducting Eliogabalo for us in 2021 at The Bruns Amphitheater.

The Coronation of Poppea is – for early music lovers – often a favorite. When you signed on to music direct this production, what was your first focus? Is there anything unique or odd about the piece?

Yes, the place that I begin is with the story itself – not the music – but the text, so that I can see what's really going on. The music is composed to highlight what the text is. So, understanding the overall story is the first step.

In early music, were librettos written before the music?

Yes, or at the same time. You can't write this music without having a text first. The reason for that is rooted in the history of how the Baroque period got started, largely happening around the turn of the 17th century.

A little before 1600, there was this group of people that got together: composers, poets, other literary figures …they would get together and talk about how text and music intersect, among other things. There was a real push from this group that we call the Florentine Camerata - I don't know if they called themselves that or not, but we do now. This Florentine Camerata group wanted to come up with a new style of music that would really focus on the text itself. The music that was happening in the century before that was largely church music, Renaissance music, where the text wasn't super important. Church music was about the composition, the counterpoint.

Known members of the Florentina Camerata included (L-R), Jacopo Peri, Vincenzo Galilei, Count Bardi, Giulio Caccini, Pietro Strozzi and Ottavio Rinuccini—perhaps the first opera librettist (wrote the earliest opera librettos for Peri (Dafne and Euridice), Monteverdi (Arianna), Gagliano, and Caccini.

But the Florentina Camerata were feeling like that music didn't really speak to the listener very well. Their idea was to look to the past, essentially classical antiquity, and try to recreate the kind of music they thought was happening back then. We're talking ancient Greece where rhetoric was all-important. And what they came up with was we call monody: essentially one singer accompanied by basically one instrument.

That bass line, used to accompany the singer, was composed in a way that aimed to move the audience very directly - just like in rhetoric when you give a speech and when you're trying to convince the listener of something.

That's what this music was conceived to do.

They would take a text and set it in a relatively simple way with melodies that aren’t repetitive, not a tune – more a musical representation of speech. The music was guided by answering the question how can we make these words communicate directly to the audience through song?

Now, in an opera like Poppea - composed around the middle of the 17th century - the style had evolved to be not just monody, but included more melodic passages that would more likely get caught in your ear and stay there. Poppea goes back and forth fluidly between what we call recitative and what we call arioso throughout the entire opera.

The direct text is the recitative and the arioso is the “earworm”.

Sometimes it's actually difficult to determine if we are in recitative or arioso in Poppea because it flows in between so easily.

You teach this subject, don’t you? You speak like you're a professor.

Yes, sorry.

No, it's fantastic! So where do you begin with your singers? With your instrumentalists? Where do you center the musical story that everyone is telling?

Yeah, it's another interesting part of doing this kind of opera because I feel quite strongly

that my role as the music director in this is not to come to it with a preset idea of how the music should be sung, or what tempo we take here, or how the singer should sing these words (Are they angry? Are they sad?) All of those decisions come through in the staging and

a collaboration between the staging director and the singer, in the moment-to-moment rehearsal work.

Before staging each scene, we'll read it through musically and then we'll talk about what's going on: what the character is saying and how they're saying it. We go into layers of emotions and to try to determine how we're going to do this…and that's when the music starts to take shape.

Musicians at the court of Crown Prince Ferdinando de' Medici by Antonio Domenico Gabbiani

So really, you are music directing moment-to-moment in the present – you’re not walking into the rehearsal room with preconceived concept that everyone else is going to fit into.

Absolutely. We all make it together in the room.

Early music is a niche part of classical music’s history. How did you come to it in the harpsichord and what about it kept you staying?

I had never played a harpsichord before I started my undergraduate degree in

piano performance. There was a class that I had to take - all undergraduate piano majors had to take a ‘keyboard literature series,’ four semesters. The first one was baroque music, taught on harpsichord, and that was my introduction to the instrument. I took this class, ‘Keyboard Lit One’, I don't know…in the late 90s…and now I've been teaching that very course in the same school for 16 years.

What school?

The Peabody Conservatory. So, I took this course, it was my first encounter with the harpsichord and there were so many things about it that I loved. There was a certain freedom that came with learning that kind of repertoire because, well, we don't need to get into that –

Oh no, let’s get into that, what do you mean freedom?

To be honest, I felt like in the modern piano world I was kind of boxed in, in terms of how one can interpret music. Like what is acceptable in terms of interpretation and what is not acceptable. It felt very narrow to me. But early music, largely unknown to most modern musicians, involves a kind of study of what we call ‘historical performance practice’. It's learning as much as we can about how they would have played this music in the time that it was written…rather than approaching it from a later perspective. For example, playing Bach from the perspective of what happened before Bach with the instruments in use when it was written (versus the perspective of the instruments that we have today, like the piano).

Obviously we don't have recordings of these composers playing their own music, so a lot of this study is reconstruction, a trial and error that engenders a new freedom to explore and just try to figure it out.

That freedom was really attractive to me.

And then there's the whole other aspect of playing the harpsichord, which is not just

playing solo music that's written out for you, but actually improvising…kind of the entire time.

You’re improvising in The Coronation of Poppea?

So again, the way this kind of music is written is for one singer and just a bass line. Just the bass line, in combination with some numbers - kind of like the Baroque version of the guitar chord charts.

Like guitar tablature where you see the charts, and then you just…drop into the band and figure it out?

Exactly. Which is why it's so much fun! The bass line and the numbers tell me basically what kinds of harmony to play… and everything else I do is improvising with those two pieces of knowledge.

And then, especially in opera, tailoring my improvisation to support the emotions that

are coming from the singers. I’ll have a very different way of playing something if the director and the singer staged the moment angry, or instead seductive, or instead sad.

That’s why it’s moment-to-moment development.

Yeah. And those things change from performance to performance! We can set guidelines of what we think is going to happen, but in the heat of the moment, you adjust and you go with it.

Is that a big difference between early 20th century opera and early music opera? Thinking about The Coronation of Poppea as compared to Schoenberg’s Erwartung, which is also in our festival this summer. With Schoenberg it’s a sort of absurd calculus where if everyone stays sharp on their dictated formula it all lines up to something poetic...instead it sounds like early music is more like jazz with the instruments finding it in the present.

Yeah, that's actually a great comparison. I’d say in general, through time, the composer goes from being very loose with very little detail in their scores - mostly just notes and then some words - and as we go through the 18th century, 19th century and into the 20th century and beyond…things become more dictated in the score itself.

Early music doesn't usually have any dynamics, doesn't have the typical piano, forte, crescendo,

very little in terms of articulation of character, tempo. None of that stuff is really specified, for the most part, in Baroque music.

But as you go forward into Mozart, into Beethoven, you start getting dynamics, you get more character indications, more words to describe how to do things, and it becomes more and more dictated.

There’s a break at some point in the 20th century where composers will have things be more random, more aleatoric. But, for the most part, music grows more specific through time with what you're required to do rather than what you’re allowed to make up.

Composers, Claudio Monteverdi and Francesco Cavalli

In 2021 you conducted a favorite among many of our audiences, Cavalli’s Eliogabalo. Is anything strikingly different between Monteverdi and Cavalli?

That's a good question because these two composers knew each other, they worked together.

Cavalli, and his wife, even had a hand in creating Poppea.

How so?

Well, Monteverdi was rather old at this point and it's unclear how much of the composition

of Poppea is actually Monteverdi's music versus his younger colleagues who we know worked on the score with him because we have things in their handwriting. We also know passages are in Cavalli’s wife's handwriting. That doesn't mean she composed them necessarily, but she at least copied them.

Do the two operas feel particularly similar or different to conduct?

That’s a tough question. Monteverdi is basically a generation before Cavalli. There are things about The Coronation of Poppea which are much more modern compared to his own earlier works, especially compared to his L’Orfeo, in 1607. Poppea has more tuneful, melodic passages…But I have to say that even though I've done three Cavalli operas: La Calisto, Didone and Eliogabalo…I can’t really remember many of the tunes. With Poppea, there are many, many, many more parts that have stuck in my head for years. There's something to be said about music that sticks with you versus music that maybe…doesn't.

And I don't know what that is, except for maybe some undefinable quality, something

magical that Monteverdi had that he put in this music that makes it stick with you more

than some other concert.

Cavalli's Eliogabalo from WEO's 2021 Festival Season. Photo: Cory Weaver

Maybe it was the magic of returning to live performance outside in that amphitheater. Maybe it was the direction and the casting…but there certainly was something electric about the production of Eliogabalo. Is there a particular memory that you have from that production?

I can't single it out to one memory, but I have to say that was one of the most rewarding projects that I've done, period. And yes, it was coming back and doing something live again,

but it was also that cast of singers, and dancers, and Mark’s direction, Ben’s choreography… It was a fantastic group of people. We were struggling through rehearsing outdoors with the bugs and the heat and me tuning the harpsichord six times a day (!). But all of those challenges, and making it through all together, added a whole other element to it to such a fun show that was outside the box and…I haven't felt that kind of team spirit in an opera production in a very long time.

For our final question, where are you in the process of this production of Poppea today, about two weeks from opening night? (Asked on July 6) What are you curious about, excited about, and is there an unknown?

As of today, we have staged the whole opera, some parts more in a more detailed way than other parts. We're working through each act, polish up things, figure out what

needs work, and what I'm looking forward to most is Saturday evening (July 8) On Saturday we will have the other continuo players with us for the first time. So far, it's just been me, one harpsichord playing the whole thing. But on Saturday we’ll have another harpsichordist, and two people playing lute-based instruments, theorbo and arch-lute, and the four of us will all be improvising together.

I’ve gone through the score and marked orchestrations where who's going to play what…Is this going to be harpsichord and theorbo? Two harpsichords, two theorboes and one organ, or is it going to be everybody? Putting all of that together will be complicated and difficult, but we'll get a lot more variety in what we're able to do.

And especially when two characters are having a conversation back and forth, we can have

different teams of two people playing with one character, two people playing with another

character, in order to have a kind of back and forth – playful, and alive. It’s the next big musical step that we take.


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