A Seventeenth-Century Embarrassment of Operatic Riches

23/06/2018

Monteverdi, The Coronation of Poppea: Soloists, Members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Annalisa Pappano’s Catacoustic Consort / Gary Thor Wedow (conductor), School for Creative and Performing Arts, Corbett Auditorium, Cincinnati, Ohio. 21.6.2018. (RDA)

Sarah Shafer (Poppea) & Anthony Roth Costanzo (Nero) (c) Phillip Groshong

Cast:

Poppea – Sarah Shafer
Nero – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Ottavia – Sarah Mesko
Drusilla – Melissa Harvey
Ottone – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Seneca – Alex Rosen
Arnalta – Rebecca Ringle Kamarei
Valletto – Daniel Moody
Lucano – Andrew Owens
Liberto – Christian Pursell

Production:

Stage director – Zack Winokur
Scenic designer – Charlap Hyman & Herrero
Costume designer – Amanda McGee
Lighting designer – Thomas C. Hase

This week, Cincinnati Opera opened its second offering of the 2018 season, Claudio Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, in a production packed with riches.

By the time Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano — the very first opera theatre — was built in 1637, much artistic water had passed under the bridges of the city that justifiably laid claims to being Europe’s 17th-century vocal epicenter. Five years later, the septuagenarian Monteverdi, inarguably the reigning operatic composer of his time, met the younger poet Antonio Francesco Bussenello. Together they set out to compose a tale about Nero and Poppea.

Bussenello encouraged Monteverdi not to back off from the real-life unpleasantness attributed to Nero and his paramour du jour, and his penchant for logical dramatic plot and down-to-earth characters won the day over Monteverdi’s propensity for nobility of emotion and elegance of utterance. While in real life Nero did jilt his Empress for the bed-and-throne-climbing Poppea, the fire soon petered out to a flickering flame.

On the other hand, the opera’s depiction of the Poppea-Nero relationship—from the post-coital scene in which they first appeared, to the sublimely beautiful final duet ‘Pur ti miro’was sexually charged and compellingly potent. To the role of Poppea, soprano Sarah Shafer brought good looks, smart acting and splendid vocalism, and as Nero, Anthony Roth Costanzo combined stylistic know-how with a sonorous countertenor, to create an intelligently stylish take on a complex character.

The rest of the cast is top-notch. Sarah Mesko delivered a nobly sung and acted Ottavia, and the lovely Melissa Harvey and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen brought vocal and physical chemistry to their assignment as the story’s ‘other’ couple, Drusilla and Ottone.

When it comes to Seneca, Nero’s tutor turned critic, Monteverdi wrote a great part for a bass singer. As the story’s moral compass, the superb Alex Rosen gave a potent, riveting performance in the aged philosopher’s death scene.

Bass-baritone Christian Pursell crafted a fine Liberto, with a superbly stentorian voice ideally suited to the role of Nero’s bodyguard, and honestly portraying the contradictions of a soldier forced to carry out orders which he hates.

Some of the saltier characters have some of the best music of the evening. At the top of that list is Arnalta, Poppea’s cheeky Nurse, whose lullaby, ‘Obblivion soave’, would be welcomed by anyone at bedtime, especially as delivered by the superb mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle Kamarei.

There’s also Nero’s real-life friend, Lucano, played to the hilt by tenor Andrew Owens as a cad whose homoerotic ‘anything you can sing I can sing better’ drinking duet with the Emperor is one of the opera’s truly hilarious moments. As Valletto, the equally funny countertenor Daniel Moody played a young servant with major aggression issues.

Such effective moments are many. Everything is linked by recitative, the musical lingua franca of most opera before the 19th century, which in lesser hands could feel like an eternal litany. Fortunately, the astute stage direction of Zack Winokur and the very good conducting of Gary Thor Wedow — in addition to the period-perfect work from Cincinnati freelance musicians augmented by Annalisa Pappano’s Catacoustic Consort — helped the opening night audience stay focused, rather than merely waiting for the next hummable tune.

Rafael de Acha

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