Not just another tale of lust and murder in the Roman Empire
The organizing theme to Opera Vivente's current season is "nice guys finish last," a sly acknowledgement that it's spotlighting some of opera's bad boys this year--such as Nero, the Roman Emperor at the heart of Claudio Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, currently in production. History remembers this emperor for his tyranny and decadence, and here Nero (David Korn) doesn't disappoint. He sleeps with a woman not his wife, sentences Seneca to death, and coldly kills a poet with a dagger to the back.
When in Monteverdi's Rome, though, the women lie, scheme, and manipulate as well as the men, and they get all the plummy roles in Poppea, particularly the titular heroine. Poppea (Ah Hong) is the woman with whom Nero has been consorting, ignoring his empress Ottavia (Katherine Drago) and her shirking to the undying adoration of Ottone (Monica Reinagel). The spurned Ottavia commands Ottone to murder Poppea, which his new love, Drusilla (Lisa Dodson), helps him with by lending him her clothes to sneak in. Even Poppea's nurse Arnalta (a superb Karim Sulayman) isn't above a little plotting, planting ideas in Poppea's head about never trusting an emperor as a lover.
Opera Vivente's home in the second-floor Great Hall of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church offers a nearly ideal place to see its productions, as the company favors slightly smaller-scale chamber opera. The performance space is intimate enough that even the back rows feel close, the stage seeming to jut into the front rows. Set designer Thom Bumblauskas achieves a modern pizzazz with limited means in this production. The main stage area is diagonally sliced by an extensive faux marble runway, flanked by hanging curtains on which a golden scorpion stands ready to strike inside a red circle sunshine-lined by black triangles. A second elevated stage area, sitting atop two columns and semi-framed by a large laurel wreath, anchors the faux marble stage at the rear of stage left. Both areas multitask as rooms, sleeping or sitting areas, and podium platforms.
The small orchestra flanks either side of the stage. Poppea's nine-piece orchestra is the early-music ensemble Harmonius Blacksmith conducted by Joseph Gascho, and its specific instrumentation--two Baroque violins, two recorders, a rich theorbo and Baroque guitar, Baroque cello, viol da Gamba, Baroque harp, and harpsichord--provides the work's sprightly score. This score is never overwhelming but very mercurial, with some melodies borne of light and airy plucked strings and others more heavy and solemn. Musically, Poppea sounds rather diverse, with no apparent central leitmotif running throughout the score. It's a background that gently eases the story along, letting the performers provide the main dramatic drive.
This mood-setting music enables and encourages the performers to act more, and Poppea's cast gamely includes vocalists who can do that as well as they sing. Korn's Nero is a study in restraint, as Korn, a wiry and petite young man, plays him as an emperor whose power lies in title and deeds and not his physical presence. Nero's cold mien is more daunting than any physical intimidation; when he kills the poet Lucano (Frédéric Rey), Nero touches the blood and applies it to his face and bare chest like a fascinated child first discovering cake frosting. Better yet, Nero summons or dismisses his guards with an impudent wave of his hand, as if disinterestedly swatting flies from the air.
But its Hong's Poppea and Sulayman's Arnalta that steal this show. Their duets and solos are blithe and witty, with Hong making Poppea a sensuously ambitious woman and Sulayman turning Arnalta into a one-woman comic foil. It helps that Arnalta gets some of the opera's best lines, whether it be warning Poppea about falling into bed with an emperor, or giddily celebrating her own rise in stature as Poppea becomes Nero's empress. Tall and unafraid to use his expressive face, Sulayman quickly became a crowd favorite, and even her wordless background cavorting with Nero's guards as Nero and Poppea lie together earned a few chuckles from the audience.
And somehow, Opera Vivente makes this 1642 work feel fresh. Do note that it's an epic three hours and 20 minutes long, but it moves surprisingly briskly, and its structure--as an argument between Virtue and Fortune over who is the better goddess before Love breaks in to blow his own horn--gives the story a rather modern and ironic twist. Roman history buffs will remember that Nero was Poppea's fourth husband, as she married and connived her way up the social ladder until she became empress. Love, indeed, conquers all.
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