Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: In "The Coronation of Poppea," a searing examination of amorality in high places

The Emperor nuzzles his main squeeze, Poppea.
The set's severe look in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of the earliest opera to stay in the repertory focuses on the timeless nature of its alarming themes: sex and power.

"The Coronation of Poppea" is being presented in the performing version that stage director Tim Albery put together with Laurence Cummings. Since Albery's explicit English translation is also used, that amounts to a very strong individual  filter through which contemporary audiences here will be taking in Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 opera. The remaining performances are June 22, 26, and 28.

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."
Nicholas Kok  conducts through limited  gesture, mostly head nods, while seated at one of  the two  harpsichords; Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek mans the other. The companions of each of these essential keyboard instruments are (using Francoeur-Krzyzek's informal terms) the "pluckers" (theorbo, guitar, harp) on one side and the "bowers" (two violins, lirone, viola da gamba) on the other.

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.
The  corrosive effect of always serving oneself is represented with chilling comic effect by Arnalta, Poppea's nurse. As sung with majestic authority by Patricia Schuman, a soprano with plenty of mezzo heft in her tone, Arnalta is capable of both upbraiding and advising the woman she serves while later licking her chops at the prospect of her boss's replacing Ottavia, Nerone's wife and Rome's Empress. Sarah Mesko played Ottavia with a sense of entitlement that fuels her growing indignation at her rival's rise and her husband's infidelity.

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.
Lending a bit of abstract delight to the story are the  occasional appearances and commentary of  three mythological figures: Fate, Virtue, and Love. Virtue's pleadings are a total loss in such an atmosphere, as Jennifer Aylmer's picture of futility made clear. Fate, confidently represented by Sydney Baedke, strides initially onto the stage confident of her customary rule over human affairs. But the story turns  out, of course, to be fully under  the supervision  of Love. In a nice tweaking of the traditional representation of Cupid, Michaela Wolz, skipping around wearing a baseball cap backwards, triumphantly represented the affairs of the heart that often hold the upper hand whenever humanity abandons ethical or rational control.
 "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.

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