Story: Nero, emperor of Rome, is infatuated with his mistress Poppea. He desires to replace his wife, Empress Ottavia, with Poppea, and the ambitious Poppea is all for that. When Nero’s advisor Seneca counsels against such actions, Nero has him removed from office and pressures the elder statesman to commit suicide.
Poppea’s ex-lover Ottone pleads with her to have him back, but she rejects him outright. Ottavia then instructs Ottone to murder Poppea to avenge the emperor’s abandonment of Ottavia for the opportunistic Poppea. Drusilla, who loves the single-minded Ottone, suggests that Ottone dress in her clothes in order to get close to Poppea.
Suddenly professing love for Drusilla, Ottone agrees to kill Poppea. Amore, the god of love, however, intercedes, convincing Ottone not to go through with the dastardly deed. When Nero learns of the plot and who was behind it, he banishes Ottavia from Rome along with Ottone. He frees Drusilla, but she pleads to be allowed to go with Ottone into exile. Nero and Poppea then celebrate Poppea's ascension to empress.
Highlights: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis utilizes the English translation by Tim Albery, who also directs this OTSL premiere of one of the first operas ever, an early 17th century work by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi.
Other Info: The weirdness of this production begins with the set designed by Hannah Clark. It appears to be the inside of a warehouse building, with large doors opening to the inside as well as a ladder on which the god Amore and goddesses Fortuna and Virtu can descend after viewing the goings-on of the mortals on the stage below.
Clark also serves as costume designer, dressing the characters in contemporary evening chic, which isn’t surprising since Nero – he of the awful historic reputation – reportedly fiddled while Rome burned, right? Tom Watson adds wig and makeup design to accentuate that party look for the naughty (Ottavia sports a frumpier style) and everything is eerily lit by Christopher Akerlind.
Albery originally designed his version in 2014 for Opera North in Leeds, England, basing on his own translation of the original libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello. The latter himself turned to the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius for inspiration, according to Margaret Reynolds’ program essay.
Reynolds notes that “the new form of public opera” was coming into its own in 1643 when The Coronation of Poppea debuted at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, and fit right in with the 'carnival' atmosphere prior to Lent.
While Monteverdi’s music is accomplished, the opera features short bursts of singing the rather stilted script, which can elicit laughs more easily than anguish.
Conductor Nicholas Kok makes his United States debut with this production, which stylishly features its musicians seated at stage left and stage right, playing an assortment of older instruments including harpsichord, Baroque harp, theorbos, lirone, viola da gamba and violins. The seriousness of the musicians often is in contrast to the melodrama being performed, whether unintentionally or not.
Mezzo-soprano Michaela Wolz is effective as the impish Amore, who shows that he’s a cut above the goddesses Virtu and Fortuna, played well here by Jennifer Aylmer and Sydney Baedke, respectively.
David Pittsinger’s bass-baritone lends gravitas to the role of the wise but ignored Seneca, while soprano Patricia Schuman shows how Arnalta, the plebian nurse to Poppea, can scheme just as much as her patrician rulers.
Tenor Brenton Ryan and mezzo-soprano Emily Fons steam up the Browning Mainstage theater with the lusty carryings-on of Nero and Poppea, respectively, adding to the melodramatic flourish encouraged by director Albery.
Tom Scott-Cowell’s counter-tenor underscores the deliberate musical choices made by Monteverdi and soprano Devin Guthrie contributes her talents in the role of the unrequited Drusilla. Sarah Mesko is effective as the wronged Ottavia, while Matthew Cairns and Philippe L’Esperance are fine as Nero’s guards Liberto and Lucano, respectively.
Albery’s distinct production offers patrons a chance to see and hear one of the world’s first operas performed in an offbeat and peculiar presentation giving a glimpse at the dawn of a new art form way back when.
Opera: The Coronation of Poppea
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 13, 15, 22, 26, 28
Tickets: $25-$139; contact 961-0644 or www.ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey