Firstly, at second intermission last night I learned from the man seated next to me that he had driven up from Virginia to see this performance. He added that any chance to hear this opera was worth a long drive.
Secondly, Vivente's director, John Bowen, usually gives a talk before each performance, starting around 45 minutes before the show, in a very comfortable lounge or study downstairs from the church vestibule. Even after I've tried to do some reading about an unfamiliar opera in advance, these talks are informative and enlightening, and Bowen is by no means dry or boring. Sometimes, the production's conductor will chat with the crowd after Bowen, as did Joseph Gascho last night.
As noted by the Baltimore City Paper's reviewer, the 3 plus hours of Monteverdi's opera fairly floated by in Vivente's staging. We saw love portrayed in its various forms, gods descending from the heavens to make pronouncements to mortals, court intrigue and so on, and the static stage set some how looked dynamic through it all.
Male soprano David Korn as Nero was astounding in voice and presence, and I'll be researching to find out how I can hear him again. If I hadn't known ahead that Korn was a soprano (and some audience members seemed confused about it), I would have guessed that he was an extraordinarily powerful countertenor. Is it possible that the male sopranos active today are the closest sound to the fabled voices of the castrati? (Korn is the first such I've heard so far, but other names have attracted attention to this voice type in recent years.) Photos and reviews indicated that Korn was a little "wiry" in physique, but he is actually quite tall and developed with an impressive chest (perhaps one of the secrets behind that voice?), and his very good looks don't hurt his stage presence either.
Korn was matched well by soprano Ah Hong as Poppea. (Ah Hong is a regular singer with Vivente and on the Peabody Conservatory's faculty.) This is only my second time hearing this opera, and last night demonstrated that it's so much more than waiting for Nero and Poppea's sublime duet at the end. After three centuries, it's still described as one of the greatest love duets in the literature, yet David Korn and Ah Hong had several other lovely scenes together throughout. (American Opera Theater has used this duet to good effect in the original Italian in its "Ground" production.)
The rest of the cast was rich, too, and I think the audience will never forget tenor/haute-contre Karim Sulayman in the comic drag role of Arnalta, Poppea's handmaid -- and even Arnalta gets a moving aria as she comforts and fawns over Poppea in one scene. A very young countertenor named Joshua Garvey was Cupid and Valetto -- raised right here in Maryland! If I can't do justice for the rest of the cast in this post, I should mention that bass Jed Springfield stood in as Seneca after health problems forced the original Seneca to withdraw just three days before rehearsals began. (Springfield sings with Washington National Opera among other ensembles and has sung in WNO's home at the Kennedy Center since its opening, as noted in Vivente's program correction.) It was good to see that a certain notorious FTD florist pose was not part of the proceedings last night, and Mercury's entrance was more godly as a result. (You may have seen this mentioned in the Sun's review of opening night, but Bowen explained on his own Opera Vivente blog that this insertion by the singer did not have director's approval.)
I must make an observation about the instrumental part of the show, played by the Baltimore-based Baroque ensemble, Harmonious Blacksmith. As conductor Joseph Gascho mentioned in his talk beforehand, reconstructing Monteverdi's score has been problematical. The Vivente production used the performing edition by Alan Curtis (who will be familiar to some as the conductor of several highly regarded recordings of Handel operas in recent years), but the ensemble still had to decide how to share the main cello line that survives from the original score, and there was apparently some improvising involved also. The ensemble was divided on either side of the stage, resulting in some very good sonic effects. An unexpected delight was actually being able to hear the theorbo, played here by William Simms. That instrument is usually part of the continuo in a Baroque orchestra and might not get noticed much, even though it's there in the bass, so hearing its plangent tones in the hall last night was a special feature.