Christine Brandes (Nero) & Emma McNairy (Poppea)
Photo by Jamie Buschbaum
To start with, a confession: It's pretty warm in the El Cerrito Performing Arts Center (aka El Cerrito High) auditorium, and I dozed off during Act I, missing about 20 minutes of the show.
This version of L'incoronazione di Poppea, as previously noted, is trimmed to about two hours of music, with a running time of maybe 2 hours 20 or 30 minutes. It's a little hard to tell because I know the show started between five and ten minutes late, and I was not obsessively checking the time. For comparison's sake, the Harnancourt recording, which is the one I own, runs to four CDs. SF Opera's 1998 production had at least three hours of music, to the best of my recollection, but my program has no estimated running time on the cast page.
The new performing version more or less succeeds in cutting the opera down to the point where you get just a couple of the story lines: the Ottavia/Nero/Poppea trio, and the related duo of Ottone (in love with Poppea as the opera opens) and Drusilla. Seneca's story line is there as well - sort of - but without his disciples and with the trimmed story line, it's hard to see how an audience unfamiliar with the full opera would have a sense of how important he was to Nero and what a betrayal it is when Nero orders Seneca to commit suicide.
I missed the servant couple; I missed the divinities; I missed Nero's friendship with the poet Lucano. I still have fond memories of David Daniels and Matthew Lord in the drinking scene in the 1998 SFO production, you bet. I believe that the opera loses a great deal of its richness when cut down to this size: it's just another boy-betryas-girl story, with nasty politics. Poppea is still performed after 350 years because of its rich world-building and the range of the characters and sub-plots. You could probably cut down Nozze di Figaro by leaving out a few subplots too, but I bet that West Edge Opera has no plans to do so.
One other issue with the new performing edition is the very, very dry musical arrangement, with two harpsichords, triple harp, lute, theorbo, and a few bowed strings. Lordy! I think there must be ways to justify the addition of a few winds to the score, so the whole opera sounds less like continuous continuo. I have no beef with the playing and conducting; just wish there had been more variety in the pit.
As for the production itself: the opera doesn't gain much from dressing up Ottavia as a cross between an airline stewardess and Jackie Kennedy, with Nero as JFK. It doesn't matter that it's in modern dress; they could be wearing togas or 17th c. dress and it wouldn't make that much difference.
It does matter that the continuous projections on a backdrop and bed hangings are usually ugly, rarely apropos, and always distracting. And it matters that about 30% of the singing seems to take place on the bed behind the bed curtains. Um, I like to see the singers! Much of their expressivity comes from seeing how they move! and seeing their faces! I have no idea why director Mark Streshinsky staged the opera this way. It makes no dramatic sense at all.
The performers were mostly terrific: I loved soprano Christine Brandes's boldly-sung Nero and Emma McNairy's delicately evil and self-centered Poppea. Countertenor Ryan Belongie took some time to warm up as Ottone - he sounded a bit blowsy and off-key early on - but was perfectly lovely and sincerely heartfelt after that. Tonia D'Amelio was a charming, delightful Drusilla, singing with point and verve. Tenor Brian Thorsett made a hilarious Arnalta (Poppea's nurse and confidante).
Not so teriffic: Erin Neff had the haughty air, but not sufficient sorrow to generate sympathy for the abandoned Ottavia's plight, and she sounded shallow and hooty, with glottal attacks galore. And bass Paul Thompson was wobbly and often flat as Seneca.