Springtime for Nero…
Judging by a seventeenth century opera, human nature does not seem to have changed very much in the last 400 years. Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea includes extremes of love and cruelty that are by turns breathtaking and venal. Shakespeare, a contemporary of Monteverdi, also proved that constancy, but what was most startling here was the reworking of a despicable bit of history into an absurd—and deeply moving—paean to love.
The West Edge Opera, now in its comfortable fourth year in El Cerrito, has been a Bay Area champion for accessible and challenging productions. At Friday’s opening they proved this again, wowing a sold-out house with an edited version of this earliest opera.
Based on the affair between Emperor Nero and his mistress Poppaea (and subsequent exiles and deaths) one would understandably be nervous about a baroque Venetian celebration of lust for power and casual cruelty masked as love and political necessity. But it soon proved easy to sing along and hate oneself later.
…and for Italy, too.
Gilbert Martinez, founder of the early music group MusicSources, collaborated with Director Mark Strashinsky to bring about this contemporary re-imagining. Together they were able to slash the decorative and slightly indulgent three-plus hours of opera and an unruly cast of peripheral characters into two seamless acts and seven principals. Shorn of their ornamented repeats, the arias felt fresh. Actually, the experimenter’s of Monteverdi’s circle (and there is some evidence that it was a group effort) went beyond counterpoint for some surprisingly modern chromaticism.
Now that baroque instruments have regained their luster, it is more usual for a thicket of schaums, archlutes, and viola da gambas to fill the pit, but Martinez maintained that in the 1640s of Monteverdi’s Venice, vocal lines were carefully supported by the strings, rather than competing with them, and so he reduced the orchestra to just seven players, conducting from the bench of his harpsichord.
Benefitting from their cuts, the work developed agility without sacrificing the meat—action, arc, intention or music. Most importantly, they cut out Cupid, who no longer pranced about the stage directing the fates of the actors. The original revisionist work, which blames Poppaea’s conniving and Nero’s extremes on that whimsical demi-god, has thankfully been updated, making them the authors of their own misdeeds.
This rescored version should work well in smaller houses around the world, but what impelled West Edge’s success were the impressive voices. Christine Brandes, a favorite of opera houses here and abroad, delivered a soulful performance of Nero, substituting a female’s mezzo for the male castrati en vogue in seventeenth century Italy. The effortless sturdiness of her voice and her regal playfulness, added to a believable physicality, made her a potent foil to co-star Emma McNairy, whose high clarity, supple runs and arresting beauty kept the action steamy.
And that action was steamy, with the set reduced to an enormous canopied bed enhanced by a backdrop of 1960s soft porn video montage. In more gender bending, counter-tenor Ryan Belongie brought a skilfull melancholy to the role of Poppaea’s jilted lover, Ottone, while Brian Thorsett added a gorgeous high tenor and comedic talents to the travesty role of Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse. (If you’re having trouble keeping score, Brandes cross-dressed as a man, Thorsett cross-dressed as a woman, and Belongie sang falsetto.)
Mezzo Erin Neff lent herself to the formidable and self-centered role of Empress Ottavia, and Paul Thompson’s hall-filling bass gave the elderly philosopher Seneca conviction and moral courage. In this 60’s update, rather than a tattered toga, Thompson wore a hospital robe and sang with an oxygen tube in his nose! Rounding out the cast, soprano Tonia D’Amelio addressed her acrobatic runs with silken tones as Drusilla, maid to the Empress.
There were many gorgeous moments, and McNairy was in many of them, but one surprise high point was Thorsett’s final aria, where he abandoned a comic approach for vocal beauty, fading out in a high register. Another was the well-known last duet, “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,” probably written by Francesco Cavalli, in which McNairy and Brandes traded phrases in a stunning mirroring.
The only flaw was in the video montage, which was repetitive and overly distorted. Perhaps they ran the same footage over and over to elicit a sense of obsession, but it didn’t quite work.
As for the real course of history, Seneca and Ottavia did meet nasty ends, with the founder of the Stoics ordered to commit suicide, and Nero’s empress (and step-sister) first exiled and later executed on charges of adultery. A scant three years later, Nero was reputed to have kicked his pregnant new Empress to death—although he mourned Poppaea deeply after!
Photo top of Emma McNairy, photo by Till Krueger; lower photo of Christine Brandes, photo courtesy of IMG Artists; bottom photo of Brian Thorsett, photo by Claire McAdams.