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It’s very easy, while enduring the umpteenth bad production of Rigoletto or Lucia di friggin’ Lammermoor, to forget why opera was invented in the first place. Those Renaissance boys in the Florentine Camerata didn’t create opera as some musico-dramatic hash to be slung when the kitchen runs out of better entrees. They envisioned a perfect union of music and word, each amplifying the other and moving the audience to heights unimagined since the dramas of ancient Athens.

Nothing shows the grandeur and elegance of their scheme as tellingly as that first masterpiece in the form, Claudio Monteverdi’s 1642 L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea). Brainy, erotic, and exuberantly cynical, Poppea’s libretto (by Gian Francesco Busenello) evokes Euripides and Shakespeare when it’s not bringing vividly to mind Washington’s present-day political scene. The score shows Monteverdi at his sublime best; the music (as it should) supports every word and spins just as compelling a story as the text does.

That story is a doozy, following Nero as he slimes his way around first-century Rome, running the usual imperial errands. Before the final curtain, Nero has denounced his empress, Ottavia; exiled the nobleman Ottone and Ottone’s current paramour, Drusilla; and ordered the death of the philosopher Seneca—the one true voice of reason in the opera—all to ensure the ascent of his mistress, Poppea, to the throne. Poppea’s coronation is a triumph for Cupid, who kicks off the show with an aria stating, essentially, “Love conquers all.” A better aphorism for this opera might be “The good finish last” or “Greed is good,” given that it plays like a cozy evening at the Macbeths’.

If Nero and Poppea are opera’s least sympathetic romantic heroes, their music is some of opera’s most seductive. The roles were sung with beauty and finely honed period style in the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s terrific production at the Barns, which, regrettably, came and went with three performances. If his high notes lacked the clarion power of, say, David Daniels’, Michael Maniaci still proved a fine addition to the growing roster of world-caliber countertenors, displaying a full, surprisingly vibrato-rich sound. With his baby fat and tousle of kid-hair, and his decadent mix of poutiness and ennui, Maniaci played Nero like some spoiled, overgrown boy—which couldn’t have been more appropriate.

But this production belonged to its Poppea. Cynthia Watters sang with warmth and rounded tone, able to fine her voice down to a beautifully supported whisper in her afterglow scenes with Nero. Beyond the vocal, Watters was all you could wish for in the part. In less politically correct times, she’d be called a “dish.” The hourglass figure, the cheekbones-for-days, the eyes capable of a hundred varieties of seduction all went hand in hand with the allure of her voice. Most important, not one moment in her portrayal lacked concentration, motivation, or commitment.

That dramatic urgency and coherence carried through the rest of the production, which, though set in a stylized version of ancient Rome, felt freshly minted and engagingly contemporary. There was nothing groundbreaking about the concept, no radical statements made with the staging, no casting traditions turned on their heads. But the consistency in stage director Gregory Keller’s attention to emotional detail and clear storytelling, and the physical beauty, heady vocalizing, and acting chops of the young cast (all members of the Filene Young Artists Program) made this Poppea that rarest of wonders: a production that does full justice not only to the work at hand, but to the art form as its creators envisioned it. (The crime is that there’s plenty of big-budget crap that runs a lot longer than the modest-sized Wolf Trap Opera was able to run Poppea.)

Special praise is due to Anna Christy’s bright-voiced and smugly blase Amore (Cupid), Elizabeth Shammash’s knife-voiced and regal Ottavia, Scott Scully’s braying and scene-stealingly campy Nurse, and the hangdog stud muffin that Keith Phares created of Ottone. (Keller made the clever directorial choice of keeping the heat between Poppea and Ottone, and Phares’ handsome baritone—his music transposed down from what is usually a countertenor role—lent special credibility to the notion that Ottone is more of a romantic threat than a patsy.) Stacey Tappan, bland as the goddess Virtue, evolved into a vibrant Drusilla; Julie Bartholomew, whose goddess Fortune was a mischievous delight, was disappointingly reticent as Arnalta.

Dipu Gupta’s playfully expressionistic sets suggested a Crayola-colored Rome—part dreamscape, part cartoon. The silvered classical columns were pretty nifty, as were the folding crimson wall panels. But best of all were the curtains, polystyrene molded with a blowtorch and then coated with auto body paint, with their wild billowing frozen evocatively in time. Martha Mountain’s lighting made the trip from neon to nocturnal with considerable finesse, and Bobby Pearce’s costume design, a slightly tamer affair, traded wittily on modern haute-couture silhouettes and Hollywood sword-and-sandal chic.

The conductor is even more of a linchpin in Poppea than in your garden-variety opera. Monteverdi took for granted that the musicians of his day instinctively knew how to augment his bald score with lines of harmony, ornamentation, and instrumental color (much as jazz musicians embellish simple chord progressions in a fakebook). But early-Baroque improvisation is not exactly a given anymore, so anyone picking up the baton for Poppea has to be ready to dig into the research and make some hard choices. David Fallis was able not only to get his large young cast all on the same stylistic page, but he had assembled a colorful ensemble of continuo instruments, including viola da gamba, baroque guitar, organ, and a pair of theorbos. And Fallis understood the need to keep the piece moving quickly and to vary instrumental textures to draw maximum variety from the undulating, conversational progress of the score. CP