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Scene from The Coronation of Poppea [Opera Omnia]
07 Sep 2008

The Coronation of Poppea

The startup of a new opera company is always cause for cheering; it is getting harder and harder (that is, more and more expensive) to do, especially in New York.

Claudio Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea

Nero (Cherry Duke); Poppea (Hai-Ting Chinn); Ottone (Jeffrey Mandelbaum); Drusilla (Molly Quinn); Octavia (Melissa Fogarty); Seneca (Steven Hrycelak); Fortune and Valet (Marie Mascari); Virtue and Maid (Melanie Russell); Love (Kathryn Aaron). Conducted by Avi Stein
Opera Omnia, performance of August 26.

All photos by Matthew Hensrud courtesy of Opera Omnia.


If the new company specializes in unfamiliar repertory – in this case the Italian seicento, terrific news if you’re a Cavalli or Scarlatti fan – and I am! – my cheers will be all the happier. If, on attending, one finds the house packed, the crowd excited, the dramatic values high and the voices exceptionally attractive, there is very little to do as a critic but spread the word and wish the company well.

For their opening production, Opera Omnia chose Monteverdi’s hardly unfamiliar swan song, The Coronation of Poppea (1641), choosing to perform it in a slangy English translation in order to make the stage activity (often complex, always highly motivated) more immediate as well as comprehensible to audiences who may not know the work.

I first heard the piece well over thirty years ago when the New York City Opera gave it a sumptuous staging with a large, nineteenth-century orchestra and large, nineteenth-century-style voices: a top-heavy bore, amidst which glamorous Carol Neblett distinguished herself with the first total nudity on a New York opera stage, and Barbara Hendricks distinguished herself in the tiny role of “Damigella” (the Maid) – the only memorable singing of the night. It has been thrilling to watch baroque performance style evolve over the years: today, young singers know what this sort of music is about, how to make a goat-bleat trill an effective piece of vocal acting, how to vary the pace of declaimed monologues, how to be sexy in the duets – and to hear performances like Opera Omnia’s, with a band of seven (two theorbos). (One of the best Poppeas I ever heard was sung over three strings and continuo.)

The staging was vaguely modern dress, with mixed gender assignments: Ottone was a male countertenor, Nerone a female alto, Arnalta – naturally – a campy tenor in drag (when has Arnalta ever failed to steal the show?), Valletto and Amore female sopranos in drag. None of this seemed to confuse anyone. Neither did the “allegorical” opening, the “bet” among Virtue, Fortune and Love over which one rules mankind – but the working out of the story confused the stage director: Ottone fails to murder Poppea not because the god of love appears and tells him to stop (as here), but because Ottone still loves the faithless Poppea and is therefore unable to kill her. This was the one major annoyance in the staging, which mercifully did not (as is often done nowadays) make a wild gay orgy of Nerone’s drunken carousing with the poet Lucano.

Poppea_OperaOmnia2.pngScene from The Coronation of Poppea

Not so long ago, filling so large a cast with young singers whose voices were beautiful enough to hold the modern ear through scenes of Monteverdian declamation would be highly unusual anywhere but in the finest music schools; Opera Omnia’s forces all sang with clear, grateful, seemingly effortless technique, appropriate to the music (no romantic vibratos), and were personable and ardent on the stage. I especially admired scene-stealing Marie Mascari as Fortune and the comic valet, Jeffrey Mandelbaum, who projected a very masculine countertenor, more tenor than alto, as Ottone, and John Young’s Arnalta, who got the laughs without falling into camp excess. Cherry Duke made a fine, unusually masculine Nerone, if not quite the adolescent punk the score implies (or is it just that I can’t forget David Daniels’ strutting, finger-snapping sex-lout in the role?). Steven Hrycelak held down the low end well – if not the very lowest notes – as the philosopher Seneca, whose gravity (in contrast to all the other characters’ frivolity) is underlined by his being the only really low voice; Molly Quinn, as the confused Drusilla, seemed to have two voices, a soubrette soprano and a darker alto; both fell pleasantly on the ear, but she should find a way to mix them in more suitable proportions. Melissa Fogarty was an insufficiently weighty figure as the bitter Empress Octavia – perhaps the suitcase she carried in her final scene distracted us from her tragedy. Hai-Ting Chinn sang the whorish Poppea elegantly, but without the deep sensual feeling that Poppeas like Troyanos have brought to this music. Still, her final duet with Ms. Duke’s Nerone was the perfect conclusion to waft us into the night in a cloud of erotic reverie: Ah yes, back in 1641, this is why opera caught on.

John Yohalem

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