University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Opera, "The Coronation of Poppea."
On Sunday afternoon, January 27th, we went to the Helene Zelazo Center on the UWM campus for the Peck School of the Arts Opera Theatre production of "The Coronation of Poppea," by Claudio Monteverdi. This 1642 opera is based on the life of Poppaea Sabina, who became the Roman Emperor Nero's second wife. How much intrigue surrounded this event is open to debate: historian Tacitus portrays her as a wicked woman, worthy of Nero; Josephus, on the other hand, asserts she was deeply religious and compassionate toward the Jews.
In any event, it is certain that Nero divorced his first wife, Claudia Octavia, sent her into exile and imprisonment, and eventually had her executed, marrying the pregnat Poppea twelve days after divorcing Claudia Octavia.
The opera deals with the supposed plots and counterplots surrounding Poppea's accession to the throne, which is a complicated tangle involving Nero, his wife (called Octavia), Poppea, Poppea's abandoned lover Otho, and Drusilla, who pines for Otho--. As the opera opens, we see Nero (Liz Magnor, singing the couner-tenor role) leaving the house of Poppea (Cecelia Davis), having spent the night, while Otho (Ben Burwell) laments. Although she is cautioned by her serving woman, Arnalta (Nick Brighty), Poppea sings a defiant song declaring her intent to become Empress.
From here, we see Octavia (Rebecca Nunez-Stubbs) expressing her anger over being abandoned by Nero; the philosopher Seneca, Nero's old tutor, remonstrating with him about his behevior, only to angrily rebuffed, and Poppea demands Seneca's death. Nero orders Seneca (Ryan Allen) to commit suicide, and the old Stoic, having been forewarned by the gods, complies in a spirit of joy since he is leaving this imperfect world for a better one.
As the plot progresses, Otho has sworn off Poppea and picked up with the virtuous Drusilla (Alexandra Kassouf), when he is ordered by Octavia to assassinate Poppea. He makes the attempt, but is forestalled by the direct intervention of Cupid, showing that the gods are indeed on Poppea's side as she had declared. Otho, Drusilla, and Octavia are all banished, leaving Nero free to crown Poppea Empress, a ceremony that is also attended by Cupid, who, with Venus' approval, declares Poppea the living embodiment of the goddess of love and beauty.
Montiverdi's is a curious opera, giving as it does the happy ending to a character so notorious, and who, according to legend, comes to a bad end herself. The UWM production seemed it was not quite sure what direction to take. There were attempts to "naughty" it up a bit, with Poppea slinking around in her nightgown for most of the show, and some gratuitious bathing-suit scenes for Octavia's servants. Arnaulta has a "bathtub" scene, attended on by two more men in swimming trunks. Nero receives the news of Seneca's death reclining in bed in shirt and boxer shorts, accompanied by his "intimate friend" the poet Lucan (Kerry Kuplic); the two of them appear to be sharing a "joint". The set was an attractive Roman villa front that acted as the street in front of Poppea's house, Seneca's garden, or the Palace as needed. However, costumes for the mortals were rather a hodgepodge of modern dress (soldiers wearing some of the same desert-camo fatigues we saw in "L'Ormindo")with the gods in classical draperies.
The majority of the performers were voice or performance students, with the exception of guest artist Ryan Allen, a veteran professional whom we have recently seen as the butler Dickenson in "The Midnight Angel" and as Njegus in "The Merry Widow." Allen's mellow rich voice stands out as an example of a fully-trained mature voice among the youngsters, but it is appropriate to his role as the voice of reason among a cast otherwise ruled by passion. There were many lovely voices and rising talents among the cast, notably the leads, Davis as Poppea and Ragnor as Nero. Their love duets in the third act were the vocal highlight of the performance. Stage direction by Kurt Ollmann was adequate (see remarks below re music direction, however) if uninspired. The crossdressed roles of Nero and Arnaulta were provided with very convincing makeup, hairstyle and costume, but could have benefited from a bit more movement coaching. Ragnor did not quite convince as a man, which I think came from leading movement from the hips and not the shoulders. And perhaps the costumier might have had second thoughts about inflicting backless heeled mules on a performer doing a first 'drag' role, since the results were rather unsteady although outright accidents were avoided.
The orchestra, consisting of two harpsichords, three violins, cello, and two recorder players, was conducted by Motoaki Kashino, played well and supported the singers. One cannot know to what extent Kashino collaborated with Music Director William Lavonis, but since he also played one of the harpsichords, certainly there was ample opportunity. Given that, the somnolent music direction was both surprising and disappointing. One knows that in Montiverdi's day dynamics were used sparingly, but it seemed that none at all were used in this performance: all the music was at one level. There also appeared to be only two tempi: a steady recitative tempo used for most of the singing and a faster "wind-up" pace used for the emphasis repetions ending the occasional aria. Were it not that stage action and song were pretty constant, moved along by a crack team of "stage ninja" scene shifters, the music alone would have been capable of inducing hypnosis.
That said, we enjoyed the performance and were glad to have seen it. If it had been a graduate's MFA production, I would have said it was very good. With the involvment of experienced faculty like Ollmann and Lavondis, the grade drops to 3.0 out of 4.
We enjoy Baroque opera and like to see it performed. It is too rarely seen these days. I think the Baroque repetoire has great utility for student-heavy programs like this one. While technically challenging, the pieces can be performed by lighter, less mature voices, without harm. That does not mean they should be toned down in any way. If I were in a position to give advice, I would suggest that Ollman step aside and give way to someone not quite so conventional as stage director, with a background in movement; that less budget be spent on set and more on costume; and take the modern audience's musical sensibilities into account when determining whether or not to take a rigidly "historical" approach to the music performance.