By CB AdamsContributing Writer
Opera Theatre’s riveting production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea brings to mind
some dubious advice from philosopher-cum-mob boss Tony Soprano, “When you’re
married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce.”
The green grocer in Poppea is none other than the real-life Roman leader Nerone (nee Nero), portrayed with unerring sleaze, swagger and callous Machiavellian machismo by tenor Benton Ryan. At its most reductive, Poppea is a “love” triangle set within a palace drama. Nerone’s desire to discard his wife, Ottavia, (played with perfect, doomed impotence by Sarah Mesko) into the compost heap sets in motion the story’s drama. But, as the title implies, this isn’t really his story. It belongs to his paramour and hot potato, Poppea, played by the excellent Emily Fons.
Poppea shares much with Carmela Soprano who famously
quipped, “…It’s a multiple choice thing with you. ‘Cause I can’t tell if you’re
old-fashioned, you’re paranoid or just a f**cking asshole.” Except, for Poppea,
those question are rhetorical. Her theme song would not be Tina Turner’s “I
Might Have Been Queen.” Fons’s Poppea, we realize early on, will be queen. Just get her to the
coronation on time.
The Sopranos operatically limned the complexities of love/lust,
power/vulnerability, allegiance/betrayal and life/death. Yet, as fresh as those
storylines appeared, they were really just modern manifestations of ageless Big
Themes – as Poppea aptly
demonstrates. To provide some genealogical operatic perspective, Poppea was first performed in the
Teatrro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1643 for the Carnival season.
And therein lies the brilliance of OTSL’s current
production: it’s a classic story still capable of captivating and surprising a
modern audience with its ambitious and equally modern Go Big Or Go Home attitude
– when presented this well. If this sounds hyperbolic, then consider the chorus
of gasps that erupted from the audience during the knifing to death of a
character (no spoilers, here). That was proof enough that OTSL’s casting,
direction and design all work seamlessly to achieve an emotionally satisfying,
multi-layered, epiphanic experience.
Unlike its namesake, OTSL’s Poppea, directed by Tim Albery by way of England’s North Opera
(2014), is a perfect marriage in toto.
Albery and set/costume designer Hannah Clark give this age-old tale a more
modern look, setting it in the near past with a sheen that is part mob movie,
part French New Wave and part Mad Men.
It draws upon talents both wide and deep, top to bottom, to achieve its
Photo by Eric WoolseyThe Leads: Part
of the magic of the elevated, high-art opera theater experience is its
potential to entice the audience to suspend its disbelief. Achieving that
alchemy is often more aspirational than actual. OTSL’s Poppea achieves that potential, with Fons, Ryan and Mesko being the
highest-profile examples. Individually they inhabited their roles and collectively
interacted with assured chemistry . Mezzo-soprano Fons nailed the voice,
mannerisms and confidence to turn Poppea from mere conniving character to
queen. Benton, Poppea’s running mate (whether at her side, trailing behind or
just sniffing around) was engaging as a man of great, misguided, misused power.
To his credit, his portrayal – more than once – begged for cries of, “You
dumbstick, don’t do it!” Mesko as Ottavia was no wet dishrag. As a character,
Ottavia is outnumbered and outgunned, but Mesko’s performance garnered audience
sympathy and support for her Sisyphean efforts to save her marriage, status and
Poppea is a rich, multi-layered story
that relies on a large cast. The leads in OTSL’s production were joined by
equally strong supporting performances, including some roles for Richard Gaddes
Festival Artists and Gerdine Young Artists.
As the philosopher Seneca, David Pittsinger’s deep baritone provided
a beautiful gravitas to his efforts to counsel and guide his pupil, Nerone. His
distinctive voice exemplifies another strength of this production – you could
close your eyes and still distinguish the various characters. Tom Scott-Cowell,
a countertenor, was a delight to witness as he pretzeled his desperate character
from jilted lover to cross-dressing assassin.
As if the human machinations weren’t enough, Monteverdi also
threw in some meddling gods, which Albery used to open the opera (even before
it officially starts) by wandering around the set, as if waiting for the party
to get started. Mezzo-soprano Michael was a delightfully puckish, androgynous
and Babe Ruth-ish Amore competing with a weary Virtu, played by Jennifer
Aylmer, and latex-gloved Fortuna, played by Sydney Baedke.
Set and Lighting:
Under Hannah Clark’s design, not an inch of the thrust stage was wasted in this
production that balanced a steam-punk industrial vibe with the beautify period instruments
of the musicians flanking each side. Overhead hung three mid-century modern
chandeliers. Shiny, verdigris back walls were reminiscent of an old natatorium
(apt, for this is a world under water), complete with a ladder used to good
effect by the gods to “ascend” above the action.
In contrast, the walls were punctured by a corrugated sliding
door and another that looked it was stolen from an abandoned meat locker. The
set design also made clever use of a rolling table for feasting, lovemaking, dancing,
peacocking, escaping and, ultimately, as a place to stack the bodies (you stab
‘em, we slab ‘em). Despite these seeming visual incongruities, the set and
design work cohesively with the other elements of this interpretation.
Music: Adding to
the unconventional presentation, Albery elevates the musicians to perform in two
string quartets seated on either side of the stage. The musicians were dressed
mostly in formal ballroom attire, adding a graceful note as they played on violins,
two harpsichords and a variety of period instruments, including Baroque harp, viola
da gamba and theorbos.
In a debate with the other gods, Amore asserts that love
will win the day. In Poppea, love – blind
love, anyway – does seem to win the day, as Nerone and Poppea finish one of opera’s
great duets and look hesitantly toward an unknowable future. This moment calls
to mind something Dr. Melfi says to Tony Soprano, “Sometimes, it’s important to
give people the illusion of being in control.”
“The Coronation of Poppea” plays at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 30. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.experienceopera.org.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.