|The Emperor nuzzles his main squeeze, Poppea.|
Hannah Clark's costumes, modern dress and business-appropriate, never seem jarring. Everything about the social milieu of first-century Rome is so remote from us that staying visually true to the period is irrelevant. What remains of core interest is the persistence of misdirected love, betrayal, intrigue, and willfulness on the part of the power elite and underlings alike.
Her set, with a clinically modern long table on casters being the centerpiece, adapts well to several purposes. It reduces each of them — banquet setting, romantic trysting place, killing floor, and meeting place — to their essentials. There's a large wall along the back with a ladder up to its summit. It's a world of barriers and limited access. The most humanly accessible sight is, with delicate irony, the setup for two ensembles on either side of the stage. The warm, seductive support the instruments lend to the ceaseless vocal lines oddly reassures the audience that there is a place for cooperative, benign teamwork in life after all. In the work itself, there is certainly no act or utterance that's free of individual fear or ambition.
|Amore proclaims control at the start of "Poppea."|
The title role is filled to the hilt of sensually applied ambition by soprano Emily Fons. Her vocal and physical allure were daringly blended, and it was clear what a hold this Poppea was capable of exerting on the weak, vain emperor Nero (the Italian version of the name, Nerone, is used throughout). Nero's turbulent, bloody reign as the leader of the world's most powerful political entity is legendary, thanks to the historian Tacitus.
As Nero, the wiry tenor Brenton Ryan makes himself fully capable of the emperor's impulsive, passionate behavior, which runs from lust to cruelty and back again. As seen at a matinee performance June 15, he commanded unwavering attention every time he was onstage. He was believably in charge of everybody. His guards, sung by Philippe L'Esperance and Matthew Cairns, make clear that their willingness to serve as Nero's henchmen is tempered by their cynicism and instinct for self-preservation.
|Ottone entertains murderous thoughts.|
Rivalry on the other side has Ottone, a role well taken by countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell, in a constant condition of fretfulness. The timbre of the male alto voice aptly conveys the whining that Ottone is accused of, but the way Scott-Cowell handled this never verged on caricature. Ottone's attempt to mimic sincerity in returning Drusilla's affection for him was perfectly simulated by the countertenor's tense dialogue with Devon Guthrie in the role.
One supporting role sums up the limited resistance to Nero's whims. It's that of the philosopher Seneca, who continues to uphold the value of rational leadership beyond prudence. David Pittsinger raised the role far beyond victimhood with his stalwart bass-baritone, giving it such stature that we are all the more grateful that Seneca's death by execution takes place offstage. Poppea has doomed him by putting before her lover a set of "alternative facts" that seal Nero's annoyance with the philosopher and all that he represents.
|David Pittsinger as Seneca tries to uphold reason against overwhelming odds.|
"The Coronation of Poppea" is a lengthy lesson in the result of that abandonment. The boldness of the characters' motivations and their readiness to turn intent into fateful action moves forward on a stream of early Baroque melody, a blend of what would become the separate functions of recitative and aria as opera matured by the 18th century. In the genre's early phase, however, there is plenty of propitious mastery to admire, and it throbs with life in this production.