Sunday, April 26, 2009

Opera Atelier - Coronation of Poppea

Had you suggested as little as ten years ago that I would find myself eager to see a production of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione de Poppea" (henceforth Coronation of Poppea), I would have been at least extremely skeptical; for heaven's sake, it was written in 1643 - what did they know back then?. But given that this this is the current opera in production by Opera Atelier, the eagerness was guaranteed.
It turns out they knew a lot in 1643! What I had not expected was what a wacky ironic piece of work this opera is. Ostensibly about the triumph of love, the libretto is full of sarcasm, innuendo (some great double entendres), straightforward humor, along with stretches that look as if they were reasonably normal opera scenes (Ottoni's struggle as he contemplates killing Poppea is an example of that). Had I known the full historical background, I'd likely have appreciated even more irony; at least we had attended Stuart Hamilton's talk before the show so we knew the outcome of the 'happy' ending uniting Nero and Poppea - Nero kills her by his own hand later. Hamilton's final epithet - 'Everybody on the stage is rotten, so it's very contemporary'.
In any case, this opera offered Opera Atelier an opportunity they really made the best of. And they kept me guessing as well. We've been subscribers now for several years, and are accustomed to a mix of singing and acting, colorful ballet interludes, often nicely integrated into the rest of the opera, and involvement from a chorus located in the boxes on one side. So we found ourselves a little surprised at the intermission when we had seen mostly perfunctory dancing to mark set changes, no chorus, and no colorful costumes on the dancers. At the same time, this allowed a focus on the drama that was riveting, and the story moved along quickly, accompanied by that wonderful Monteverdi music rendered superbly by Tafelmusik. The death of Seneca was exactly the right point to insert the intermission, as this is in some way the moral center of the story (if there is a moral center of any real sort), Nero's declaration of his clear intent to replace Ottavia with Poppea. Moreover, it is one great piece of drama and singing; I had wondered why Curtis Sullivan had apparently been given such a minor role in this production, but his contribution to that scene was anything but minor. Marshall Pynkoski in his introduction had warned us that Joao Fernandes was a bit under the weather, but if it showed, I would sure like to see that scene again with him in full form!
After the intermission, Olivier Laquerre, who had seemed to me to be singing somewhat faintly earlier, picked it up, and that problem was no longer noticeable. Also after the intermission we got a very nice balletic number, which fit perfectly into the scene where Poppea is sleeping. And near the end we got a chorus as Poppea is to be made Empress. So my early confusion was addressed at least a little! Whoever wrote the last aria (Wikipedia seems to think the consensus is that it was not Monteverdi), it is utterly lovely and was done beautifully, and the irony of Poppea's later fate shone through, especially with the final gesture, with Nero poised threateningly over the prostrate Poppea. I love art where the form and content are slightly at variance with one another, and Opera Atelier marked it beautifully with that final small moment.
Michal Maniaci, a male soprano, played Nero (Nerone), and was terrific. It is interesting that the soprano register simply does not detract at all from his masculine presence in this role (nor did it in Idomeneo). Peggy Kriha Dye as Poppea was a convincing object of love/lust, and did a great job conveying Poppea's ambition. Just as in the production of Idomeneo, the two of them displayed great charisma. I'm a long-standing fan of Carla Huhtanen (best Papagena I have ever seen) and her Drusilla was a treat, moving between joy and despair a couple of times. Laura Pudwell was given a nice comic role and made the most of it. While I single out a few names, there was no role that seemed to me to leave anything really to be desired. The acting is uniformly excellent, and this is crucial in an opera like this where the devilish text and plot are so central.
My wife and I have been looking at our spending on live entertainment lately, and have noticed a waning of our interest in some of the companies whose productions we have attended regularly. As we walked away from the theatre after this show we agreed that we'd be subscribing to this company for the foreseeable future. They not only maintain a high level of quality but they are also willing to take a fair bit of artistic risk (beyond the already-risky focus on Baroque opera), and constantly surprise the audience (at least me and my wife).



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