The University of Southern Maine’s School of Music in Gorham has a useful and interesting Opera Workshop, in which undergraduate singers prepare scenes from operas and musical theater works, and present them in concert. It is valuable work for young singers, and it is rare to see it on an undergraduate level. More typically, such programs are offered in graduate school, when voices are settled and polished, acting techniques have been assimilated, and the students have more real-life experience to draw on.

This year, some of the scenes the workshop undertook were from “The Coronation of Poppea,” Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 work about the Roman Emperor Nero’s decision to repudiate his wife, Octavia, and elevate his mistress, Poppea, to the throne, and the backstairs machinations that made that possible. Because the scene study went well, Ellen Chickering, the program’s director, decided to stage the full opera. She presented her young charges in an appealing, modestly staged production of the work on Saturday afternoon at the school’s Corthell Concert Hall.

Actually, the version the Opera Workshop presented was not quite complete: The full opera runs about 3½ hours, and Chickering’s version came in at just over two. But the trims were things like dialogues between soldiers, Mercury’s warning to the philosopher Seneca that Nero has decreed his death, and Poppea’s rejoicing over Seneca’s demise – nothing absolutely essential to the plot, in other words.

The students sang in English rather than Italian, and generally projected their texts clearly enough to be understood. The biggest compromise, apart from the trimming, was the use of two electronic keyboards instead of an orchestra. Tina Davis, playing an instrument set to sound like a harpsichord, accompanied the arias and recitatives; Scott Wheatley played the orchestral ritornellos on a keyboard in which harpsichord sounds were combined with the spacey timbres of synthesized strings. You got used to it.

The class designed the scenery and costumes, which were spare but serviceable, and closer in spirit to Monteverdi’s time than to ancient Rome. And under Chickering’s direction, the singers moved around the stage economically and sensibly, with a few updated touches. In the Prologue, when the Goddesses of Fortune and Virtue expound on their influence in human affairs, Nora Cronin, as the Goddess of Love, listened with the bored, eye-rolling impatience of a modern teenager. She stopped short of shrugging and adding “Whatever” after Virtue’s aria – but it was implied, before making her own argument, that Love’s influence trumps them both.

The range of vocal and dramatic ability was fairly broad, but of course, students at this early stage in their studies cannot be judged too exactingly, and the performance as a whole was impressive, particularly given the complexity of the characters. Nerone (or Nero) and Poppea, after all, are presented as smitten lovers, but they are also murderous, self-involved monsters, something more experienced singers usually account for in their portrayals.

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Several singers were exceptional, and worth keeping an eye on. Not least were two countertenors, male singers who work in the alto and soprano ranges, taking on roles that in Monteverdi’s day would have been sung by castratos. Christopher Garrepy as Ottone, Poppea’s former lover, and James Brown as Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse, each produced a fully supported tone and brought a measure of subtlety to their singing and acting.

Helena Crothers-Villers, the mezzo-soprano who sang Octavia, Nero’s spurned wife, brought a centered, beautifully tuned sound, as well as a sense of gravity tempered by anger, to the role. And Rachel Shukan, as both the Goddess of Fortune and Drusilla, Octavia’s lady-in-waiting (who is in love with Ottone) used her powerful soprano to excellent effect.

Soprano Rhiannon Vonder Haar was vocally strong, if dramatically inconsistent, as Nerone, and soprano Cathryn Matthews was a good match as Poppea. Singers who made important contributions in the smaller roles included Kiersten Curtis (Goddess of Virtue and Pallade); Jeffrey Mosher (Liberto), Matthew LaBege (Seneca), and Teremy Garen, Logan MacDonald and Thomas Hanlon (Seneca’s entourage and celebrants at the coronation).

Chickering said that her workshop’s next production would be Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in March 2017.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: allankozinn@gmail.com

Twitter: kozinn

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