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BWW Review: THE CORONATION OF POPPEA at Opera Theatre Of St. Louis

BWW Review: THE CORONATION OF POPPEA at Opera Theatre Of St. Louis

Claudio Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea has opened at Opera Theatre St. Louis, and it's the kind of thing that ensures the company's place among the great opera companies of the world. This is not merely because of the simply gorgeous music or the technical aspects which are flawless. No, there is an even deeper, more challenging beauty here. This production of this strange baroque piece fills you with questions and tensions and puzzlements--and you will walk away from it simply desperate to talk about it. It's filled with a peculiar dissonance. Not in the music; that's as beautifully tonal and harmonious as all those familiar Monteverdi madrigals. No, what I mean is a moral and esthetic dissonance.

This is the "love" story of Nero and his mistress Poppea. Her driving ambition is to become Empress. Nero (here called "Nerone") wants to marry her, but first he must be rid of his current wife, Ottavia. Poppea discards an old lover, Ottone, to focus on Nero.

The bitter Ottavia forces Ottone into a plot to murder her rival, Poppea.

Drusilla, whose love for Ottone is unrequited, offers to dress him in her clothes so that, disguised as a woman, he can gain easier access to Poppea. Thus disguised Ottone approaches the sleeping Poppea, knife in hand. But he can't do it--he loves her still. He flees. He is seen escaping, and of course the fleeing assassin is identified as Drusilla.

We have a sort of "I am Sparticus" moment where Drusilla and Ottone each claim sole responsibility for the plot. Nero, in an odd flush of clemency, banishes Ottone and Ottavia. The now-absolved Drusilla chooses to follow Ottone into exile. So, in the original libretto, Nero marries Poppea and makes her Empress; Ottone and Drusilla are in blissful exile. It seems it's "happily-ever-after" for everybody--except perhaps Ottavia who at least isn't dead. (Poor Seneca, Nero's tutor and advisor, is dead, but that's another story.)

Happily-ever-after? Really???!!! Poppea was a viciously ambitious courtesan without the slightest moral scruple. Sex for power was her game. And we all know the madly cruel tyrant Nero, who had his own mother murdered. Rumor has it that Poppea died after Nero kicked her in the belly when she was pregnant with their child.

Happily-ever-after-after??? Well, that's an ending that the librettist Giovanni Busenello left for us in 1643. He softened many of the sharp edges of these historical characters. He and Monteverdi gave Nero and Poppea some utterly gorgeous love songs to each other.

But the folks in Venice in 1643 knew that Romans and their government were corrupt and cruel. They knew that such an ending was ironic, that "happily-ever-after" was not in store for these despicable "lovers". And in this Opera Theatre production stage director Tim Albery makes very, very sure we understand that too. There are bodies. There is blood. In action quite absent from the libretto we are shown the murderous disregard in which Nero holds his own grant of clemency. People die.

The set we see as we enter the theater is strange. Set designer Hannah Clark gives us . . . what? Is it a swimming pool? The vast walls of glossy tile and the steel ladder against the back wall tempt us in that direction. But there is a steel door into a cooler, there's a corrugated sliding steel door, there are long steel tables on wheels. Is this a morgue? An abattoir? A madhouse? In the end, we find, it is a little of all these things.

At first the tables are set with wine and glasses. Is this some reception?

Musicians are grouped at either side of the stage--baroque strings, lutes, a harp and two harpsichords.

Three gods sing a Prologue contending as to which is the most potent--Virtue (Jennifer Aylmer), Fortune (Sydney Baedke), or Love (Michaela Wolz). "Amore", as in last season's Orfeo, is presented as a cheerful lass in a baseball cap.

Poppea (Emily Fons) and Nero (Brenton Ryan) are an intensely attractive couple. Miss Fons is stunningly beautiful and svelte in gowns by (again) designer Hannah Clark; Mr. Ryan looks like a handsome young Mafia don; he shines with a sleek Fascist beauty. The two are quite alike in their dark blond hair and the arc of their noses; they might be siblings (which thought works wicked subliminal subtleties). Their love for each other is often displayed in a breath-taking eroticism. It is so lubricious that a time or two we think we're about to see a consummation right there on the steel table.

Costumes indicate a time in the early 1960's. They are mostly in black and white, with a burst of crimson in one gown of Poppea's.

Nikolas Kok conducts from the harpsichord. The ensemble, gentle and lush, is perfect for this music. The modern audience should be warned that the score has much of what seems like recitative. Critic David Johnson asks us not to expect immediate affinity with Mozart, Verdi or Puccini:

"You have to submit yourself to a much slower pace, to a much more chaste conception of melody, to a vocal style that is at first merely like dry declamation and only on repeated hearings begins to assume an extraordinary eloquence."

Within that context there are delicious surprises.

Ryan and Miss Fons bring superb high voices to their roles. Their final duet, "Pur ti miro" ("I gaze at you, I possess you"), is simply sublime. Miss Fons shows a lovely vocal warmth, and Ryan has astonishing mastery of dynamics.

Ottone is beautifully sung by counter-tenor Tom Scott-Cowell. His serenade to Poppea is a highlight of the evening.

David Pittsinger brings a rich agile bass to the role of Seneca, Nero's tutor and advisor. He's perfectly professorial and quite stoic in his acceptance of Nero's command that he kill himself. (It is odd that Seneca's music seems to display more flourishes--cadenzas, arpeggios, trills--than might be expected. These almost mock the character's gravitas.)

Just when we are hungry for more than one voice there is a beautiful trio by Seneca's friends--"Do not die, Seneca".

There's a delightful, funny singing competition between Nero and his bodyguard Lucano (Philppe L'Esperance) as they rejoice over Seneca's death. (Again that dissonance.)

Sarah Mesko sings Ottavia and she thrills with bitterness and vengeance. Devon Guthrie does beautiful work as the long-suffering Drusilla. And Patricia Schuman as Arnalta, Poppea's old nurse, claims a memorable moment of beauty in her lullaby over her sleeping mistress.

But let's end with another look at dissonance. In the attempted murder Ottone is dressed as a woman. Now a guy in a dress is one of the most ancient and reliable comic tropes. And when his will-power collapses and he cries out in a treble voice, "What was I thinking? What was I thinking?!" how are we to avoid laughing? Well, the fact is we can't. At that point on opening night there was general soft restrained laughter. We felt bad about it--or confused--but we laughed. Would this moment of high melodrama be less comic in Italian than in this translated libretto? Perhaps. But I'm not sure. I rather think that director Tim Albery meant us to find ourselves laughing at this bloody business--and to feel very uncomfortable about it.

The Coronation of Poppea has enjoyed a surge of productions around the world in recent years--as the corruption inherent in absolute power again seems to threaten us. This brilliant production at Opera Theatre of St. Louis continues through June 28.

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From This Author Steve Callahan