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Summer Opera 2006: Coronation of Poppea

Central City Opera gets a special Ionarts star in their book for programming a Baroque opera this summer, and an extra gold star for choosing Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, one of my favorites. Their conductor was a Baroque specialist, Nicholas Kraemer (of Music of the Baroque in Chicago), who led a pickup instrumental group from the harpsichord. Kyle MacMillan wrote a preview (Central City's "Poppea" skips the easy listening, July 6) for the Denver Post:

In place of its usual pit orchestra, Central City Opera has put together an ensemble of just 10 musicians - all baroque specialists from primarily Chicago and cities on the West Coast. In addition to Kraemer and William Averill on the harpsichord, the early-instrument ensemble will consist of two theorbos - long-necked lutes - and six other string instruments including a viola da gamba, violone and violoncello. Using an edition prepared by early-music specialist Clifford Bartlett, the whole ensemble actually plays very little, with most of the singing accompanied only by continuo - usually just one or two instruments. "My job was to decide who played when - which continuo instruments played at which point," he said. "In order to change the colors and support the drama, we have, say, harpsichord and cello with one character and theorbo and gamba with another."
Well, MacMillan did not end up liking the opera that much in his review ("Poppea" in the wrong camp, July 13):
In recent years, director Ken Cazan has staged some of Central City Opera's most memorable productions, including insightful, affecting versions of Benjamin Britten's "Gloriana" and Lee Hoiby's "Summer and Smoke." But with the company's new production of Claudio Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea," its final offering of the 2006 season, Cazan has hit an unfortunate sour note. Put simply, his approach to this 1643 masterpiece just doesn't work. [...]

For reasons that never become apparent, Cazan tries to camp up "Poppea," setting it in some vague, futuristic time, with costume designer Alice Marie Kugler Briston dressing the gods in gold lamé and the soldiers in Klingon-like uniforms complete with phasers. This approach does garner laughs, but too often they come at the production's expense. And too many times, Cazan's clever stage antics seem forced, actually contradicting the words the characters are singing and the emotions they are attempting to express. Even worse, the campiness is often accompanied by the worst kind of overacting, especially in the expressions of anger and displeasure. These include such worn-out dramatic crutches as clutching walls and writhing on the floor. Some scenes are so over the top that they are just nonsensical, such as Cazan's bizarre staging of Act 2, Scene 5, in which he takes the "celestial nectar" all too literally.
He gives singers and players high marks, however. For another perspective, we turn to Marc Shulgold's review ('Poppea' puts modern spin on ancient masterpiece, July 13) in the Rocky Mountain News:
It hardly seems possible that an opera written more than 350 years ago could remain as touching, provocative, funny, dramatic - and unblushingly erotic - as when it was first presented. But Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea still can pack a pop. Particularly when staged and sung as brilliantly as it was Saturday at the Central City Opera House. [...]

The staging, as we mentioned, is pretty racy, with onstage costume changes plus some healthy doses of sex and drugs. For good reason. Don't let the beautiful music fool you: Apart from Seneca, Poppea's smarmy characters are easily corrupted by power - just like today. So why not bring a contemporary outrageousness to this ancient yet timeless masterpiece? The appearance of various gods in gold lamé, entering and exiting through sliding doors, proved effective - along with those Star Wars outfits, hair styles and weaponry. And the "singing contest" between Nero and the poet Lucano, which begins with a heroin fix and slides into tacky psychedelic euphoria, captured Nero's ugly persona. Hats off to director Ken Cazan for bringing to life a group of intriguing mortals and gods. In his care, they became very entertaining.
I wish I had seen it myself.

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