Now in its final season, “Game of Thrones” has so far focused on the encroaching horde of icy zombies rather than political intrigue, seduction, megalomania, and other human dramas at the royal court. The good news: For those things, we still have opera! And if you enjoy “Thrones,” you might feel the same about Boston Baroque’s semi-staged production of “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” Monteverdi’s final masterwork, which comes complete with sex, lies, and too many characters to keep track of.
The similarities to the colossally popular HBO series don’t stop there. At Friday evening’s performance at Jordan Hall, the top-shelf cast admirably carried the serpentine plot, which often turns from tragedy to triumph and comedy to agony within the space of a few notes. For the most part, the singers inhabited their roles with great nuance, and no character was easy to wholly love or hate.
Just from the title, one knows how the story will end: Poppea, the mistress of Emperor Nerone (Nero), will supplant the reigning empress and be crowned, proving that love trumps fortune and virtue alike. What happens along the way is another matter, and the show’s alpha couple, Poppea and Nerone, was handled by a dream duo of Handelian luminary Amanda Forsythe and superstar countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.
Forsythe’s Poppea was a canny climber with a visible romantic streak, and her lissome instrument ensnared Nerone and audience alike. (Of note: the real Poppaea Sabina was born seven years before Nero; Forsythe and Costanzo share the same age gap.) At one point it seemed she forgot a line, but peeked at the score over music director Martin Pearlman’s shoulder and made a speedy recovery. Opposite her, Costanzo played Nerone as a spoiled boy-king, ruled by only his desires. His clarion countertenor was the most prominent sound from anyone on stage, a nice touch suggesting that the emperor doesn’t know how to lower his voice.
The strong supporting cast further elevated the show. The best among those included Emily Marvosh devastating as the spurned empress Ottavia, Brian Giebler as a bawdy and sweet Arnalta, Sonja DuToit Tengblad doing double duty as the goddess Fortuna and the easily duped lady Drusilla, Kevin Langan as a staid, rational Seneca, and Carrie Cheron as a bratty Cupid and randy pageboy.
Oh, did we mention the sex? Yes, but it bears repeating. There was no nudity, but none was necessary to get the point across. In Poppea and Nerone’s first appearance, they pawed at each other with abandon. Later, Poppea blindfolded the emperor and dominated him with her words, making him writhe in an erotic frenzy. The keening, drawn-out climax of the ecstatic drinking-song duet between Nerone and the poet Lucano in the opera’s back half can either be subtle or not, depending on the singer and director, and Costanzo was very much not subtle.
The orchestra, conducted by Pearlman at the harpsichord, sounded the best it has this season. The continuo section was perpetually active, varying its texture; the inclusion of hearty bass accents from Michael Leopold’s theorbo and the melancholy whine of Motomi Igarashi’s lirone was especially inspired. Staging by director Tara Faircloth and sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat made the most of the little room available at Jordan Hall, utilizing a long catwalk between the orchestral players and continuo section. Neil Fortin’s costumes were a mixed bag of glittery eleganza and Party City Romanesquerie.
The show reached its apex (as it well should) at Poppea and Nerone’s final love duet, “Pur ti miro.” Here, at last, Costanzo concentrated his voice’s forte fire to a white-hot pianissimo thread, encircling and entwining Forsythe’s, and the stage seemed about to spontaneously combust as they sank to the floor together. It was clear that power, not love, had triumphed.
At Jordan Hall, April 26. Repeats April 28. www.bostonbaroque.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.