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In Review > North America

L'Incoronazione di Poppea

NEW YORK CITY
Bare Opera
11/18/18

STRIP AWAY THE CONTROLLING FORCES of Fortune, Virtue and Love from L’incoronazione di Poppea and what’s left is sex and violence. Famously, Monteverdi’s 1643 work is one of the few theater pieces where nastiness triumphs while decency is derided, and Bare Opera’s dramatically intense production (seen Nov. 18) reveled in the opera’s perversity with startling grit. Heavily cut, without prologue, gods or goddesses, and called merely Poppea, the production proved an excellent showcase for several committed singing actors.

Two rows of spectators surrounded the tiny playing area, which consisted of two beds (we understand these are instruments of power), augmented by a handful of props. Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes featured street grunge and cheap bling, while creative and technical director George Del Barrio, along with lighting designer Anthony Tornambene, made the most of The Blue Building’s exposed brick walls and warehouse atmosphere to enhance the in-your-face realism director David Paul elicited from his talented cast. 

Thoughtless, hateful and narcissistic leaders dominate the news, so it was chilling to witness the petulant, dangerous emperor Nero turn into a raging beast, first brutally kicking Drusilla, who has been accused of attempting to murder Nero’s mistress Poppea, then copulating with Poppea in equally violent desperation. Seneca, Nero’s former tutor and the voice of reason in this opera, has been fingered by Poppea as dangerous to the state, so Nero orders him to commit suicide. Director Paul denies the philosopher even this dignity, having Seneca’s students and Nero’s henchmen torture him and eventually do the deed themselves. Other small dramatic lapses marred Paul’s generally excellent direction. The philosopher Seneca would never have plopped down in bed next to the Empress of Rome, even in her demeaned and captive state. And without the character Amor to awaken Poppea dramatically just as her desperate ex-lover Ottone is poised to murder her, the scene was clumsy and ineffective.

Most disappointingly, Paul’s vision needed more effective musical support. Music Director Laetitia Ruccolo had assembled a small ensemble (string quartet plus double bass) with theorbo/guitar, while conductor David Moody played continuo chords on a piano. Stronger, stylish leadership would have made many scenes more effective, in particular Nerone’s quarrel with his tutor Seneca, and some of the quieter scenes in Act II, where so many chords were incorrect or late that it sounded like sight-reading. And while the singing was strong and well-defined, more understanding of Monteverdi’s rhythms, notation and language setting would have helped everyone.

Bare Opera’s interpretation, which emphasized sex, sex and more sex, did little to highlight Poppea’s growing realization of her power over Nerone or her development as a manipulator, but Maria Lacey looked suitably determined and sang the role with clean and bright tone, her musical skills on point. Briana Hunter made the most of Ottavia’s big moments, especially the first monologue in which the imprisoned Empress laments her situation with analytical bitterness, and her dramatic voice boasts an interesting edge. Ariadne Greif was vocally miscast as Nerone, her girlish sound jarring with a resolutely butch physical manner, but her voice is captivating. Other cross-gendered roles were excellently handled, particularly Vivien Shotwell as Ottone. A nobleman dressed as a homeless person, Shotwell accepted, even reveled in, the character’s debasement, as he cannot let go of Poppea. Without glamorous vocal writing to define him, the role often comes off as a tedious bore, but Shotwell’s portrayal was gripping, her voice rich in its lowest reaches and projecting just enough gender ambiguity. Costumed as a spry, grandmotherly fortune-teller, tenor David Charles Tay avoided any hint of camp in his affecting and amusing portrayal of Poppea’s nurse Arnalta, and sang with bold clarity, yet producing a heady mix for the hypnotic lullaby.

Alexandrea Smither was a fine Drusilla, so hopelessly in love with Ottone that she loans him her clothing and takes the heat for his attempt at murder, while Timothy Stoddard brought suitable hardness to the roles of Lucano and Liberto. As Seneca, Christian Isaiah Simmons needed stronger direction, both musically and dramatically. Anne Marie Stanley (Valetto) and Max Potter (Damigella) relished both watching and participating in the torments of others, and after intermission the audience assembled in an adjacent room to view their sex scene, played with relish and energy. Paul’s predictable ending was a disappointment. As Poppea and Nerone, victorious at last, circle each other on their throne/bed, Stoddard and Simmons advanced menacingly. I was expecting a surprise bloodbath, or some other shocking effect. —Judith Malafronte



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