Saturday, February 09, 2013

Poppea at West Edge Opera

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.

1 comment:

Bach Rameau said...

Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your kind and informed post about West Edge Opera's "Poppea." I hope to explain a little about the "musical arrangement". Basically, our choice about "orchestration" follows very closely what we know about Monteverdi and Cavalli's resources at theaters in Venice in the middle of the 17th century. Payment records show us they consistently had a harpsichord, maybe two, and a theorbo, maybe two. A curious footnote is that Benedetto Ferrari was one of these principal theorbo players, and likely composed the final duet "Pur ti miro." Instruments of the violin family were limited to one on a part. The harp was a little extra added by us, although we really can't prove they were used at all in the theater. I made the choice in light of the fact that we wanted another theorbo, but found the harp a satisfying substitute. Without exception, the scores of these Venetian operas are with a continuo bass lie, and a few scant ritornelli punctuating scenes or sparingly used in strophic airs. Winds are NEVER called for. There is absolutely nothing to suggest they couldn't afford more instruments or desired them.
I am one of the few that allow this "orchestration" to stand, as is. It is surely an acquired taste for some, especially for those opera goers that are used to the elaborate arrangements of Leppard, and even period instrument advocates, like Rene Jacobs.
Yes, these arrangements satisfy the desire to hear a colorful "renaissance orchestra," but flatly contradict what Monteverdi and his followers expected and heard. It used to be assumed that "Poppea," "Ulysse," "Calisto," and countless other operas were missing something, because they didn't have the elaborate fully written out wind parts of "court" or "occasional" works, like "Orfeo." I believe that Leppard and others felt that modern opera audiences would find a more 18th century treatment more palatable to an unfamiliar audience.
I am convinced that what we lose in color is made up for in flexibility from singing actors, and a much more intimate connection between the pluckers and singers. It is an entirely different esthetic from what we are used to hearing in later works. I too resisted this treatment, and my initial reaction was similar to what I felt when I heard Handel's "Messiah" without the additions of Mozart, Elgar, and Beeacham. Eventually I allowed myself to hear these works differently.
It was a pleasure to explore "Poppea" with this sound esthetic, and it wouldn't have been possible with a larger opera company demanding a union size orchestra. All of the continuo players in the West Edge production used the same continuo bass line, and improvised their parts. Each player was thus enabled to "identify" with a particular character as the staging rehearsals progressed. It was a wonderful window into Monteverdi's world and process.

all best,
Gilbert Martinez, Artistic Director