CAMBRIDGE — The Boston Early Music Festival’s final concert of the season Friday at Sanders Theatre doubled as a sneak preview of June’s 2015 Festival & Exhibition, in which BEMF will stage all three of Claudio Monteverdi’s surviving operas: “L’Orfeo,” “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria,” and “L’incoronazione di Poppea.” Backed by a seven-piece chamber ensemble that included BEMF musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, soprano Amanda Forsythe and Australian countertenor David Hansen sang excerpts from “Poppea,” in the roles they’ll play in June, Hansen as Emperor Nero, and Forsythe as Poppea, the mistress whom he elevates to the throne. The evening was rounded out by vocal selections from Handel operas and instrumental pieces by Handel and Dario Castello. But the performances made it less like a preliminary and more like a main event.
Forsythe needs no introduction to BEMF audiences: She was Edilia in the 2013 production of Handel’s “Almira,”; she sang the title role in the 2011 production of Steffani’s “Niobe, regina di Tebe,”; she sings Euridice on BEMF’s Grammy-winning CD of Charpentier’s “La descente d’Orphée aux enfers,”; and when BEMF last did “Poppea,” in 2009, she was a bewitching Drusilla. Hansen was making his Boston debut; he’ll be back to sing the same character, Nero, in Handel’s “Agrippina” for Boston Baroque later this month.
The Monteverdi excerpts weren’t just sung, they were acted. Poppea is no innocent; Forsythe was by turns conniving, cajoling, coy, flirtatious, and smoldering. One moment Hansen was caressing her bare shoulder; the next he was hysterically ordering Seneca to commit suicide. This was opera as theater; words and feelings took precedence over vocal fireworks. The finale from “Poppea,” the duet “Pur ti miro,” was tender and ennobling.
The instrumental complement was spare — just strings and continuo — but that made it all the easier for Forsythe and Hansen to sing conversationally when they chose. The scenes were interspersed with the Overture to “Poppea” (both Venetian and Neapolitan versions) and with a pair of sonatas by Monteverdi contemporary Dario Castello that served as dramatic intermezzos.
After intermission, the singers cut loose in the Handel arias, Forsythe in “Schönste Rosen,” from “Almira,” and “Da tempeste,” from “Giulio Cesare,” Hansen in “Torni pure,” from “Parnasso in festa,” and “Dopo notte,” from “Ariodante,” showing a fabulous coloratura. At one point, they passed each other and high-fived. The program concluded with more playful teasing in the duet “Bramo aver mille vite,” also from “Ariodante.” There could hardly have been a better advertisement for what’s coming in June.
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Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com