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Reviews

Claudio Monteverdi: Coronation of Poppea
05 May 2009

Opera Atelier does it as it was

It’s an odd day in opera when the bad girl wins, but that is only one thing that makes the Opera Atelier production of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea remarkable — and admirable.

Claudio Monteverdi: Coronation of Poppea

João Fernandes, Carla Huhtanen, Peggy Kriha Dye, Cory Knight, Olivier Laquerre, Laura Pudwell, Vicki St. Pierre, Tracy Smith Bessette, Michael Maniaci, and Curtis Sullivan. Conductor: David Fallis. Director: Marshall Pynkoski. Choreographer: Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg. Set Designer: Gerard Gauci. Lighting Designer: Kevin Fraser. Costume Designer: Dora Rust d'Eye.

Above: Publicity photo courtesy of Opera Atelier

 

For the Toronto company, the sole endeavor in North America devoted exclusively to the authentic staging of early opera, is in itself both remarkable and admirable. OA’s founding director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunmesse Zingg leave no scholarly stone unturned in their effort to create productions that take their audience back to the time of the composer. And in so doing they do not merely create a physical replica of a historic staging; their success lies rather in their ability to lay bare the intense emotional involvements that once made Poppea a blockbuster of the Italian Baroque.

The Poppea on stage in Toronto’s handsomely restored 1913 Elgin Theatre began as a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and was first on stage here in 2002. In the intervening years the production has lost none of its glittering beauty, and its star — Michael Maniaci as Nerone — has grown even more impressive in his artistry since then. Now just into his 30s, Maniaci is a unique phenomenon in a world now overrun by talented countertenors.

By his own definition Maniaci is a male soprano whose larynx failed to develop, leaving him with a high voice that is totally natural. He was spared the agony of his voice breaking and thus must resort to falsetto in his work. That’s the technical side of things.

Maniaci is now in demand everywhere, and the voice continues to overwhelm with its strength and dramatic power. As Nero(ne), who in the final B.C. century allegedly played his violin while Rome burned, Maniaci has a lot of fiddling to do in the melodramatic entanglements in Poppea and in the final performance of the season seen on May 2, he was equally excellent as the demonic politician and as the gentle lover. His most tender moment, however, came not in an exchange with ambitious Poppea, but rather with “hands-on” relief provided by a servant as he lay on his bed. Happily, Maniaci has his vocal and dramatic equal in the passionately obsessed Poppea of soprano Peggy Kriha Dye, a leading figure in opera houses since she created the role of Stella in Andre’ Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire at the San Francisco Opera.

European João Fernandes brought both dignity and majesty to Seneca, in this story not merely the noblest Roman of them all, but the only the only unsoiled character in the entire drama. A hush settled upon the audience at the conclusion of his death scene, which appropriately ended the first half of the performance.

Beyond these leads men in the cast largely outsang the women involved. As Ottone, Poppea’s rejected husband who in newly-found love for Drusilla plots to murder his ex-wife, bass baritone Olivier Laquerre was a commanding and convincing figure, while Carla Huhtanen was a sweetly adequate, but in no way overwhelming Drusilla. Kimberly Barber sympathetically portrayed Ottavia, Nerone’s rejected wife and thus the great loser in the story.

Compared to the concept of the role in other productions Vicki St. Pierre took a largely straight-forward approach to Ottavia’s nurse, who then lowers herself to the general level of indecency prevalent in the story to jock up her heels — literally — at the thought of the greater glory that she will henceforth enjoy as Poppea’s servant. The nurse is more commonly sung by a man who makes this a comic role — as in a recent Houston Poppea imported from Bologna where she took cues from TV’s Aunt Emma.

Distinction is brought to OA productions by Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, conducted for Poppea by OA resident music director David Fall is. And eight members of the Atelier added both to the beauty of the staging and its dramatic continuity.

All the above, however, are factors that contribute to a success far greater than the mere sum of these many parts of this production. For it is the total impact of this Poppea that makes it overwhelmingly moving music theater.

Elders recall the infancy of the early music movement when emphasis was upon scholarship and respect for history. Performances were impressive — but anemic. Here, on the other hand, is opera as full blooded and vital as anything that Verdi and Wagner were later to write. The company has no fear either of emotion or the searing sensuality often present in Monteverdi’s score. It’s what makes Opera Atelier the winner that it is.

Sets and costumes true to the period were by — respectively — Gerard Gauci and Dora Rust d’Eye. The staging was effectively lighted by Kevin Fraser. In its next season Opera Atelier stages Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Call 416-703-3767 or visit www.operaatelier.com.

Wes Blomster

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