Sopranos in Love – Can’t Stop Believin’ in OTSL’s ‘Coronation of Poppea’

By CB Adams
Contributing 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 successes:

Photo by Eric Woolsey

The 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 self.

Supporting Actors: 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.

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