Cincinnati Opera's 'Coronation of Poppea': First-century Rome meets 21st-century America, mediated by Monteverdi

Deep personal intrigue at a society's highest levels may not permit drawing as many parallels from one era to another as temptation offers. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy said, and when power and wealth are involved and sustained by flattery, the intimate rancidness radiates in a peculiar way. So it was in the reign of the Emperor Nero, whose increasingly cruel and willful rule (54-68) was immortalized by the historian Tacitus.

Nero and Poppea prepare to canoodle.
Drawing parallels to today must be resisted, especially when the vehicle is such an operatic landmark as "L'Incoronazione di Poppea," by Claudio Monteverdi. When norms are overthrown and government by iron whim takes over, it may be best to let each historical tub rest on its own bottom. So on to opera-reviewing!

Monteverdi came a little late to the turn-of-the-17th-century creation of opera, then had a remarkable "late spring" as a composer in his 70s.  One of the last results was this opera, marketed under its English title "The Coronation of Poppea" by Cincinnati Opera, though as always with this company, the 1642 work is performed in the original language.

The colorful Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, drawn from Tacitus' narrative, served the esthetic mission of early opera to give the words primacy. Cori Ellison's English supertitles for this production are witty, elaborate, and striking in their character-revealing clarity. With such people, even their chicanery is a blunt-force instrument.

As seen on opening night June 21, "The Coronation of Poppea" was gloriously performed and conceived with hints of period authenticity leavened by modernist simplicity in Amanda McGee's costumes. Thomas C. Hase's lighting and Adam Charlap Hyman's sets evoke the severely "baked"-looking, eerie architectural facades of Giorgio de Chirico. Large but human-scale units were moved apart and together, their prim rounded Romanesque arches serving as exit and entrance points. A staircase becomes central when the title event takes place. It also is plain and severe, its balustrades echoing the steps' right-angle regularity.

The restlessness, vanity, and ambition of Nero and his mistress Poppea, along with secondary
Ottavia brings Ottone into her plan of revenge.
machinations of the embittered Empress Ottavia and the jilted warrior Ottone, were reflected imaginatively in Zack Winokur's stage direction. There was no stinting of physical roughness to match the verbal roughness typical of these Monteverdi/Busenello Romans. Expert vocalizing in rapt clinches or flat-out from the floor held no apparent terrors for these singers.

An outstanding countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, sang Nero. His range of dynamics and tone color was astonishing, and you could easily believe this Nero was a hidden aesthete — a figure whose passion for the arts turned toxic as the toxicity of absolute power overcame him. There was something of a spectacle about Constanzo's performance, and it was wholly fitting. Getting his own way is a need Nero applies an artistic flair to. If the Stoic philosopher Seneca stands in his way, as he does valiantly in the first act, all Seneca's previous service means nothing. It's "What have you done for me lately?"

Seneca tries to get Nero to obey reason, not passion. It will not end well.
Alex Rosen gave ample dignity and resolve to the role of Seneca. His bass voice displayed a flexibility that served the portrayal well. The real Seneca was much less of a good guy, and the opera reflects that checkered reputation early on with the amusing colloquy of a couple of soldiers on watch dishing on him.

Seneca's philosophizing was of the superficial variety, and he made sure he trimmed it to the prevailing winds; he seems to have been a kind of ancient Roman Jordan Peterson. In the opera, he is mostly heroic. His "antidote to chaos" fails, however; his boss is having none of it — he will dump Ottavia and marry Poppea. Seneca's  suicide at the end of the first act was movingly staged, accompanied by a pleading trio well-sung by Andrew Owens, Christian Purcell, and Daniel Moody (all of whom also took other small roles).

As Poppea, Sarah Shafer gave every reason to believe a sensualist might throw over just about everything for her sake. Her singing was brilliant, laden with emotional purpose and directed toward the peak of female achievement in Poppea's society. Still, she avoided making the character seem too calculating and hard-edged.

Shafer's excellence was nicely poised against the contrasting soprano voice of Sarah Mesko, as Ottavia, who had a kind of wounded diva grandeur that made her sympathetic even when she was roundly denouncing all men. (Guilty as charged! at least this man was tempted to confess.) Ottavia's farewell to Rome in the final act is one of the score's high points; the aria signals that a sturdy patriotism is wrapped up in the discarded empress' shattered self-esteem, and that came through in Mesko's performance.

The cast's other countertenor, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, likewise made for a fine contrast in that voice category to Costanzo. Though caught up in intrigue, his character Ottone helps establish a moral context for the action. Cohen conveyed both a lover's stricken desire to make things right by any means necessary and enough of a conscience that even Nero is impressed. He and his wannabe girlfriend, Drusilla, given buoyancy and self-sacrificing ardor by Melissa Harvey, are imperially rewarded by a not unwelcome exile together.

With two important contributions — one more dramatic, one chiefly vocal — Rebecca Ringle Kamarei made an outstanding impression as Arnalta, the well-filled contralto role of Poppea's confidante. Her resistance to Poppea's headstrong romantic tantrums was stoutly set forth in the first act; in the second, her performance of a tender lullaby to the high-maintenance young woman floated under expert control.

Gary Thor Wedow conducted the performance adoitly, with the exemplary, idiom-true Cincinnati early-music ensemble, the Catacoustic Consort, in the pit. I particularly fancied the seductive chitarrone accompaniments and, at the other end of the expressive scale, the crucial contributions of the percussion.

By 1642, Monteverdi had honed his expert command of the madrigal in several enduring volumes. He tweaked that genre's expressive complexity toward the ends of monody in "Poppea," and this production reinforces the realism of his art by dispensing with the peripheral allegory and mythology of some versions. Love conquers all, not as the mischievous, fleet-winged and bare-bottomed Amor, but as the abstract, all-powerful magnet and chaos-generator felt as much everywhere today as in first-century imperial Rome.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]


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