West Edge Opera is performing L'incoronazione di Poppea this weekend, which I've been looking forward to for quite some time. After all, I'm on record saying that I think it's one of the greatest operas, the equal in scope and power of Le Nozze di Figaro, which practically everyone thinks is the most perfect or greatest of all operas.
Last week's SFCV Music News column had the following from Mark Streshinsky, who has just been named WEO's General Director:
[We are] reducing the personnel involved and bringing the opera down to its core plot line, removing unimportant characters and focusing the piece. Gilbert is creating a performing chamber arrangement, utilizing nine instrumentalists, to be lead by himself at one of two harpsichords.
Our intention is to create a documented piece that can be done economically, not just by us, but by small companies and schools throughout the country. As with our 2010 performances of Xerxes, the production will make use of purely Baroque period instruments.
While the orchestra will be period, the production most definitely will not be. It is my intention to bring across to the audience the consequences of a leader gone wrong. Emperor Nero betrayed his people and his country and we will use projections and modern plot devices to create a production that resonates this theme. Our lighting designer, Lucas Krech, will use video and still imagery to create an immersive performance environment in which to place this fascinating and hauntingly beautiful work.I think that creating short versions of lengthy works to make them financially possible for smaller companies is a perfectly reasonable goal. WEO has previously performed, though they did not create, the four-hour Legend of the Ring, which I thought mostly successful. (I bet Jonathan Khuner could have cut down the Ring as effectively, though, if he had time. Some of the omissions from Legend are glaring and unnecessary.) After all, the SF Opera Poppea production of 1975 and 1981 had 16 named characters; the brilliant 1998 production had twenty-three (23). Most small companies would fall over trying to rehearse, and pay for, such a vast work.
But I've got a few bones to pick with the rest of Streshinsky's comments. If he thinks there are unimportant characters in Poppea, I'd like him to get to know the opera better. While it is a huge piece and full of plot lines, they all contribute to what we know about the Rome of the opera; they all give context and power to the Nero/Poppea/Ottavia part of the story. Those "unimportant" characters are vital to the world-creating aspects of the opera.
Also, modern plot devices? What? I'm fine with updating, but I think as a justification "It is my intention to bring across to the audience the consequences of a leader gone wrong" is not necessary. The characters and their situations are pretty darned timeless, and with Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Nixon and George W. Bush all in living memory, I don't think the audience really needs a lot of topical reminders of the consequences of a leader gone wrong.