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March 9, 2009

Opera Vivente tackles timeless 'Coronation of Poppea'

Opera Vivente PoppeaMonteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea offers a glimpse into the origin of the operatic species. Although not the first extant opera, this ca. 1650 work, more than any other early example, contains within both the music and the libretto nearly all the seeds of the art form's eventual development. It’s the ultimate prequel.

Every time I see a production, I’m struck anew by the way Poppea seems to anticipate so many things. When Nero and Poppea entwine vocally in the exquisite closing duet, for example, a couple centuries’ worth of Italian opera seem to unfold. It’s not just an Italian thing, though. When Nero’s teacher Seneca is visited by Mercury, who informs the old man that his death is near, I invariably get a flash-forward to Brunnhilde’s appearance before Siegmund to convey similar news in Die Walkure. Time and again, the plot of Poppea, with its judicious mix of drama and humor, shows the way toward a massive amount of opera repertoire that will follow. Not that any of this is necessary to appreciate the power and beauty of Poppea on its own. This is a pinnacle of early baroque style, an arresting fusion of music and drama.

Stagings don’t come around every day, certainly not in Baltimore, so Opera Vivente’s production is most welcome. On Friday night in the hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the company has managed to build a comfortable home for more than a decade, many things went wonderfully well, starting with ...

Opera Vivente Poppeathe period instrument ensemble, Harmonious Blacksmith. Sensitively conducted by Joseph Gascho – fluid tempos, nuanced phrasing – the musicians, arranged on opposite sides of the floor, maintained remarkable smoothness and warmth, providing a firm foundation for Monteverdi’s ever-elegant, ever-telling vocal lines.

As in most baroque operas, Poppea poses the castrato question -- deciding what kind of voices to assign to the roles in the opera originally sung by castrati (they’re hard to find these days). Director John Bowen engaged a male soprano as Nero. The appearance of male sopranos in baroque operas, as opposed to countertenors, seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. I’ve heard one or two convincing cases, voices that achieved more tonal body than the typical use of falsetto. David Korn, as Nero, was most persuasive mid-range, when the sound was firm and vibrant. He tended to turn strident and effortful at the top, but he maintained a stylish delivery throughout. Although there were times when more confident acting would have been helpful, Korn’s boyish looks played up the spoiled, immature side of Nero.

(In a surprising, provocative touch, Bowen's direction revealed the cruel side of the emperor, too, the side that would help make him infamous. This Nero coldly slays his pal Lucano, moments after sharing a kiss in one of the opera’s most sensual scenes. I’ve seen other directors play up the homoerotic idea here – the libretto makes it almost irresistible – but the sadistic violence was something new. I must admit I rather liked it.)

Ah Hong had quite a triumph as the subtly conniving Poppea. The soprano’s tonal gleam filled the hall beautifully, and her phrasing was always richly detailed. Her acting, too, proved appealing. As Ottone (the other former castrato role), Monica Reinagel used her burnished contralto to consistently eloquent effect. Katherine Drago, as Nero’s out-of-favor wife Ottavia, and Lisa Dodson, as the Ottone-smitten Drusilla, did effective work. As Seneca, Jed Springfield sounded a bit worn around the edges and not always on pitch, but he shaped phrases with a gravity that caught the nobility of Seneca.

Karim Sulayman camped it up mightily as the nurse Arnalta (drag roles were a niche thing in baroque opera); his singing didn’t always measure up, but he sure delivered the comic relief. Ryan de Ryke sang with his usual expressive depth as Mercury, but why did Bowen have him strike silly FTD Florist poses during the serious death-announcement scene? In the other supporting roles, things ranged from the passable to the inexcusably amateurish, the latter prevalent enough to bring the whole production down several notches.

Thom Bumblauskas designed a simple set that enabled the action to move along neatly. The costumes, designer by Jennifer Tardiff, could have used a bit more style, at least for Nero and the other upper-crusties.

Remaining performances are Thursday and Saturday.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:24 PM | | Comments (1)


The best account of the castrati I've come across so far is in "The Rough Guide to Opera". While we wonder what they really sounded like, we don't want to revive the practice. (Furthermore, the operation did not guarantee a great singing voice and fame for the victim, according to the Guide.) I'm looking forward to hearing Vivente's production with or without castrati on Saturday.

Thanks for the comments. One of these days, I've got to check out the only known recording of a castrato, a member of the Vatican Choir. Reports I've read are so negative -- he was too old by the time he was recorded, it is said -- that I hesitated about buying the disc. Maybe I just prefer to imagine what such fascinating creatures sounded like in their heyday. The computer-generated tones used in the movie 'Farinelli' (morphing a real countertenor and mezzo) offer an intriguing suggestion.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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