Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Macbeth in Lyon

A revival of the Opéra de Lyon’s 2012 Occupy Wall St. production of Verdi’s 1865 Macbeth, transforming naive commentary into strange irony, some high art included.

Barber of Seville Is Fun in Tucson

On March 4, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Tucson. Allen Moyer designed the bright and happy scenery for performances at Minnesota Opera,

Moody, Mysterious Morel

Long Beach Opera often takes willing audiences on an unexpected journey and such is undeniably the case with its fascinating traversal of The Invention of Morel.

Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

Katie Hawks makes quite a claim for Handel’s Acis and Galatea when, in her programme article, she describes it as the composer’s ‘most perfect work’. Surely, one might feel, this is a somewhat hyperbolic evaluation of a 90-minute pastoral masque, or serenade, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has its origins in a private entertainment?

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.



Kurt Streit and Susan Graham
06 Dec 2006

“Poppea” - Heartless in L.A.

After the successful première of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” (Saturday, November 25th) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, General Director Placido Domingo spoke warmly and cogently about this early Italian masterpiece, about its free-flowing music and the perfect relevance of the text to today’s world with all its greed, ambition and self-seeking.

Above: Kurt Streit (Nerone) and Susan Graham (Poppea)

Below: David Daniels (Ottone) and Christine Brandes (Drusilla)

All photos courtesy of LA Opera


He might also have added that it was an opera that suited this particular city so very well: a web of drama and danger, political ambivalence and lack of moral centre. The baddies come out on top; the goodies, if they exist at all, fade into the sunset.

Los Angeles has become synonymous with downtown decay, the inhumanity of its suburban landscapes and an artistic immorality crystallized over decades by the Hollywood film machine. Today, as the city fights its own traditions to restore and renew what used to be good and worthwhile, the formerly conservative LA Opera has been making its own statement of change by allowing and encouraging productions that challenge audiences to leave their comfort zone. “Poppea” was an inspired choice, and although originally envisaged as a new production, it became necessary to import Pierre Audi’s celebrated staging for Netherlands Opera. To sell this to their less adventurous patrons LA Opera engaged world-class performers like Susan Graham (Poppea), Kurt Streit (Nerone), David Daniels (Ottone), Frederica von Stade (Ottavia) and got Harry Bicket to lead a thirteen-strong period band, complete with theorbos, lirone, and baroque cello, from the harpsichord. For many in the audience on first night, this was a revelation indeed: to be able to hear a vocal line with absolute clarity, where the words were everything, the music supporting rather than over-whelming.

In the early 1640’s, as opera was moving from the ducal palaces to public theatres, Monteverdi emphasised plot, drama and virtuoso vocal writing, leaving the gods and mythological creatures behind and concentrating on real human beings for the first time. With “Poppea”, opera entered a new age. Today, his problematic drama still causes an audience to stop and think: can these two rather awful people really win it all - and deserve that happy ending and sublime duet? Of course Monteverdi’s audience knew as well as we do (and probably better in many cases) what was to come later in the story of Nero and Poppea - the vicious violence, the bloody nadir of a tyrant’s rule. They knew that this was a snapshot in time, and that Virtue didn’t always conquer, that Fortune and Love were powers as fickle as dice.

These last three characters, opening the proceedings to set the stage and give warning of what is to come, were well sung by young singers Stacey Tappan, Tonna Miller and Hanan Alattar respectively, although the latter sounded least convincing stylistically. Throughout the opera the minor roles were mixed and matched between some very promising young artists with not a single voice sounding ill-tuned, nor a character looking under-rehearsed. Outstanding among them were tenor Nicholas Phan (Lucano/soldier/friend) and Keith Jameson, another young tenor, singing the role of page Valetto. Jill Groves gave an outstanding performance as Ottavia’s ancient Nutrice.

The roles of philosopher/poet Seneca and Drusilla, hopefully in love with Ottone, were taken by Reinhard Hagen, bass, and Christine Brandes, soprano. Hagen possesses a deep, warm bass that reverberated convincingly around the theatre, giving substance to a character that Monteverdi suggests is essentially morally weak, and even pretentious in his stoicism. Brandes is a baroque singer with world-class credentials and she made the most of the slightly put-upon character of Drusilla, making every word count with a pure soprano that sounded completely at ease in the idiom. Veteran performer Frederica von Stage might not be known for her Handel or Monteverdi, but she showed her immense versatility with a finely-drawn portrayal of Ottavia, vengeful spurned wife of Nerone. The voice might not be what it was in terms of sheer vocal beauty, but it still had power and a fine dramatic sense.

Singing the traditionally “travesti” role of Arnalta, Poppea’s foolish old nurse, British tenor Chris Gillett was a great success with the local audience, as he played the part with a fine balance between farce and pathos. This opera is full of wonderful comic moments, vignettes and asides, that lighten the overall gravity of what is going on “main stage” - and the ridiculous old snob is a major source of that light relief.

But the centre of this opera lies in a triangle of love, ambition and power, represented by Ottone, Poppea and Nerone himself. With David Daniels singing his first (and not last, we hope) Ottone, the audience was treated to a real baroque specialist at work. His exquisitely beautiful instrument is perfectly suited to the melismas and tonal contrasts of the work, not to mention the idiomatic musical style of the period - something not always quite so well accomplished by others. If the part doesn’t allow him to soar to where his voice really blooms, it certainly displays his other vocal and dramatic talents at their eloquent best. One of Audi’s adjustments this time around was to allow Daniels to extend the character from the rather one-dimensional and droopy “spurned lover” into something much edgier, much more scheming. One had only to watch Ottone’s eyes, whilst assuring Drusilla of his suspiciously new “love” for her, to know that she was being cruelly misled.

Ambition, impure and simple, is what the character of Poppea is all about and if Monteverdi had any sympathy for her, it doesn’t show. But there is a kind of awful magnificence about so driven a soul, so determined a woman in the man’s world that was ancient Rome, and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was in many ways the perfect embodiment of those arguable virtues. Her pinpoint intonation, and expressive and assured control of dynamics ensured that she dominated scenes where Poppea set out her stall to become the most powerful woman in the land; there were also gorgeous pianissimo notes reflecting her occasional inner self-doubts. If there was any doubt in Nerone’s mind, it could only have been “when” not “if” he would gain Poppea as his empress. Kurt Streit is an immensely accomplished dramatic singer and he engaged all his abilities in this portrayal of the despotic emperor who uses absolute power with complete disregard for consequence. If his rich tenor seemed sometimes stretched beyond comfort, it was never to the extent of pain for either singer or audience. He too was able on première night to display some beautiful high soft notes that almost convinced us of his character’s ability to love. Baroque aficionados might argue about the decision to transpose the role of Nerone down from the high alto/male soprano range, as it certainly changes the musical balance between him and Poppea and Seneca, losing those delicious dissonances and “crunches” in the big duets. However, now that Daniels no longer sings Nerone, there are precious few male singers able to cope with the tessitura of this role at the original pitch - and fewer still with a name big enough to fill the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Before long, would it be too much to ask for a big house to use both Daniels as Ottone and perhaps young Michael Maniaci as Nerone? The one thing that the two principal singers could not offer in this production of “Poppea” was youth - and we therefore lost an essential element in the story, that of youthful arrogance and bravura. This Nerone was unpleasant, but he wasn’t the brattish young killer of history. This Poppea was beautiful and scheming, but she wasn’t the teenage temptress, nurse in tow, for whom Monteverdi wrote his melodious lines. This is where financial reality, in the form of box office receipts, meets artistic vision - a modern dilemma that the composer would have recognised full well even in the 1640’s.

One cannot leave this production without mentioning the superb costumes, for they were in fact the major scenic vehicles of story and character progression that gave focus and colour within Audi’s stark metallic sets. David Daniels (Ottone) and Christine Brandes (Drusilla) The renowned Japanese designer Emi Wada recreated many of the costumes for LA Opera, as the originals were too complex to re-size and each was a masterpiece in textural and expressive design. Both colour and complexity of materials are used to mark the moral and social rise and fall of the characters - for instance Poppea starts out in almost virginal cream and progresses through richer red and gold until she matches Nerone in imperial magnificence for her coronation. Much like Monteverdi’s great gift to modern opera as we know it today, Wada’s costumes are not time specific; they defy categorisation and remain as a work of art in themselves. In a city that is busy trying to re-invent itself, such timelessness shines out like a beacon of hope for the future.

© Sue Loder 2006

Remaining performances at 7pm on December 7th, 13th and 16th; matinee at 2pm December 10th.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):