The Triumph of Lust….er, Love
Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleeker Street
08/21/2008 - August 22, 25, 26, 27
Claudio Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) [in English, translated by Anne Ridler]
Hai-Ting Chinn (Poppea), Cherry Duke (Nero), Melissa Fogarty (Ottavia), Jeffrey Mandelbaum (Ottone), Steven Harycelak (Seneca), John Young (Amalia), Molly Quinn (Drussilla), Marie Macari (Fotune/Valetto), Melanie Russell (Virtue/Dannigella), Kathrun Aaron (Amore), Robert Boldin (Lucano/Soldier II), Richard Lipold (Soldier I/ Littore)
Avi Stein (Harpsichord), Daniel Swenberg and William Simms (Therebo and Guitar), Christa Patton (Baroque Harp), Montoni Igarashi (Gamba and Lirone), Aaron Brown and Dongmyung Ahn (Violin)
Carla Bellisio (Costume Designer), Evan Purcell (Lighting Designer), Lauren Brown (Set Design), Kathlee Stakenas (Stage Manager), Elizabeth Archer (Assistant Director), Anne Wood (Make-up Design and Costume Assistant), Katya Khellblau (Technical Director)
Avi Stein (Director), Crystal M. Manich (Stage Director), Wesley Chinn (Producer)
H.-T. Chinn (Poppea), C. Duke (Nero) (© Matthew Hensrud)
19th Century. Shanghai, 20th Century New York or 21st Century Las Vegas never approached the glory and decadence. of 17th Century Venice.. It was the shipping entrepôt between West and Orient, its government was republican, its people secular, its morals…uh, questionable.
The theatre scene approached that of Manhattan today. Save that by the mid-17th Century, Venice was risking its money on that new-fangled drama with music so popular in the ducal courts. To guarantee success, though, they needed a Name. A name which today would equal Sondheim and Bernstein and Gershwin combined.
With Claudio Monteverdi, they got not only a name, but a composer who was fed up with myths and Royal Patronage, and wanted to sink his hands into what we call manic reality. That reality was passion, lust, , and honest emotion.
After the spectacular Orfeo, Monteverdi in his eighth decade created L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Not only did Poppea never need any apologia (“the beginnings of modern opera”), but in the right hands the 1643 opera. can be as emotional as the most intense verissimo.
Those right hands were unquestionably behind the most unlikely setting of Le Poisson Rouge, once The Village Gate and today the home of the most singular music in New York. Yes, the stage was more Spartan than the elaborate sets of Olde Venice—a Vandyke-red curtain, a divan, many many chairs—but the large cast and the orchestra of ancient instruments (see the performers list above) made this opera more gripping than one could ever imagine.
The “moral” could only be Venetian (or Las Vegas-ian!): Love (rather, Sex) will always triumph over Virtue.. It starts with a cuckolded husband watching his wife making love with the Emperor, but goes down from there.. On this stage, the lust was more than graphic, it was virtually pornographic. Various nurses and one philosopher (Seneca, a kind of Roman Polonius) may preach against it, but it continues to the last orgiastic duet,. along with suicide and near murder.
Even more important—most important—director Crystal Manich never once played this for comic-book laughs (and I have seen the opera this way). Not a single scene (except a silly one in the Second Act) is played anything but seriously. When Seneca is about to die, his acolytes huddle in the corner like Socrates’s disciples, with those most tragic Monteverdi chords. When the nurse Arnlata sings to Poppea as she sleeps, the hush is almost audible. The would-be murder, which could be grand guignolis .melodrama with honest urgency.
Musically, Director Avi Stein (conducting from the tiny harpsichord), gave an impetus and push to each scene. The first familiar notes took an odd rhythmic jolt, but Poppea has no authoritative score, so perhaps he was right. And hearing so many female voices could have become tiresome. Yet as the sex and violence continued with music verging on the most dissonant sounds, he never lost sight of the erotic storyline, with the voices to do his bidding.
And what voices they were!! The women (and rare men) had the vocal expertise to essay Baroque phrasing, melismas and trills with ease. And above all stands (or sits or lies) Poppea, played by Hai-ting Ching, already an established Baroque singer. Only in the third act was her voice raised. But her passion—especially in the low register—was more than enough for volume.
She resembled that silent film vamp, Theda Bara, and acted equally seductive. As for her stage presence, well, Ms. Chinn was prone to….
Oh, hell, she was simply prone! An iconic voluptuary.
Cherry Duke, as Nero, is usually played by a tenor, but this soprano (originally a castrato?) was very appealing. Ms. Duke was also a complex. character: weak, vindictive, heroic and a pawn for Poppea. (I like the translation of the final aria: She: “I adore you.” He: “I desire you.” That says it all.)
Ottavio, Nero’s unhappy wife played by Melissa Fogarty has a moment in the last act when, banished from Rome, she sings farewell and sadly departs. Very moving indeed. Jeffrey Mandelbaum was the equivalent cuckolded husband. His counter-tenor register was easy and believable. Steven Hrycelak played Seneca like Polonius, but his bass-baritone was a welcome change, and the death aria—so beautiful than even Chaliapin used to sing it—was very effective.
The audience favorite was undoubtedly Marie Mascari, as Fortune (and later the Queen’s attendant, Valleto). Her voice was clear as a bell, but she was so electric in her movements that an ordinary director would request her to tone them down. Ms. Manich, though, is no ordinary director, and this was no ordinary opera.
In fact, all of the acting was paradoxically fascinating. The rolling eyes, exaggerated gestures, the eclectic costuming (Nero wears Crown, necktie and sandals) is theoretically an unplayable jumble. But it works.
While no established score is extant (and I have only the repugnant Raymond Leppard version), it is apparent that this was the complete opera. But the intimacy of the stage and musical expertise made this one of the great occasions of this year’s opera.
One important caveat. Belatedly I looked at the program introduction where Artistic Director Wesley Chinn “encourages” us to “clap, cheer, catcall or even boo.” Perhaps that was the tradition in Venice many centuries ago, but this production was so compulsive that one could only feel awe, both for the young performers and the ageless composer.