We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Anna Farysej and Nacole Palmer--photo by Brian Long
Perhaps the mayhem and immorality under the Roman Emperor Nero resonates with our current political climate.  Indeed we have seen three versions of Monteverdi's 1643 masterpiece L'incoronazione di Poppea in the past year.  On the other hand, its recent popularity may be due only to the beauty and expressivity of the music.

Last night at the intimate 13th Street Theatre, Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble presented their version as part of their Tenth Anniversary Season, and a fine version it was!  The cast we saw only performed that singular night; we felt privileged to be in the sold-out house to hear some amazing young voices advancing in their careers, helped along by the intense instruction and guidance of Dell'Arte Ensemble.  Artistic Director Maestro Christopher Fecteau has a knack for selecting promising young performers and guiding them into the next stage of their careers.

Witness the plenitude of bright shining sopranos who mastered the art of baroque singing without compromising their acting skills.  As Poppea, Anna Farysej created a character who was more ambitious than evil; she lured Nero (an excellent Nacole Palmer) with abundant wiles and overt sexuality to abandon his "infertile and frigid" wife Ottavia, portrayed by strong mezzo Heather Antonissen, so that she Poppea could become Empress.  Ottavia gets to sing a heartbreaking lament to which any 21st c. discarded wife could relate.  To paraphrase, "We give birth to men who then torment and abuse us."

In opposition we had the rejected lover Ottone, played by counter-tenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum (who is at a more advanced stage of his career, having graced the stage of The Metropolitan Opera); Ottone was solicited by Ottavia to murder Poppea.  To this end he has enlisted the assistance of the kooky and pliant Drusilla, performed by the adorable Noelle McMurtry who lends him her clothes as a disguise.

The ending is not exactly tragic.  Drusilla and Ottone fall all over themselves trying to take the blame for the failed murder attempt to protect the other but Nerone does not slaughter them; in an act of clemency he sends them into exile along with his discarded wife.  That Poppea and Nerone are portrayed more favorably than in history books tells us something about the 17th c. audience.  Indeed Amore herself (an effective Briana Sakamoto) ensures that they have a happy ending, singing a gorgeous duet to close the opera; Amore himself, the blind child-god, has triumphed over the bickering Fortuna (a funny Amaranta Viera) and Virtu (the very young and talented Sarah Ann Duffy) who each claimed primacy over the other in controlling human history.  But no, in the end, it's all about LOVE.  Using the three gods as a framing device drives the point home.

The only tragedy in this opera is the death of Seneca, Ottavia's tutor, ordered by Poppea to eliminate a roadblock in her path.  This is also an artistic tragedy because it takes place in Act II and we wanted to hear more of bass Hans Tashjian who beguiled us with his superb singing and strong stage presence.

In an unusual casting move, mezzo Melissa Kelly, a fine singer and actress, portrayed both Arnalta (Poppea's nurse) and Nutrice (Ottavia's nurse).  Her funny bit came when she sang about her elevation of status as the nurse of the new Empress.  In smaller roles, we heard Ray Calderon, Nicholas Connolly, Edwin Vega and Nathan Letourneau.  All sang well.

The backbone of this excellent production was Monteverdi's gorgeous music, played by The Sebastians, a baroque ensemble led by harpsichordist Jeff Grossman.  The captivating theorbos and lutes were played by John Lenti and Charles Weaver while the heavenly harpist was Christa Patton.  Rounding out the ensemble were violinists Daniel S. Lee and Dongmyung Ahn with Ezra Seltzer playing the cello.

Stage Director Victoria Crutchfield and Costume Designer Nina Bova, obviously working with a very small budget, managed to create the illusion of more.  This placed the emphasis on the singers and the music which was a good thing.  We applaud Dell'Arte Ensemble not only for nurturing young singers but also for putting great art onstage with modest ticket prices, allowing New Yorkers unfamiliar with opera to dip their collective toes in the operatic waters and giving New Yorkers who are familiar with opera the opportunity to see operas that have gone unproduced at the Met.  There are a couple more performances of "L'incoronazione di Poppea" and one couldn't spend a better evening.

© meche kroop

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