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.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


Cast of Poppea presented by BARE Opera

Bare Opera surely has their finger on the operatic pulse of 21st c. New York City, especially the pulse of young opera goers. Instead of waiting four long hours to hear "Pur ti Miro", the ravishing duet between Nerone and Poppea that concludes Monteverdi's last and greatest work, L'incoronazione di Poppea, the audience got the main points of the opera with as much glorious music as one would wish for, in the space of two hours.

Instead of sitting and yawning, staring through binoculars, the audience members were seated on three sides of the playing area, giving everyone an "up close and personal" involvement with the morally challenged characters whose lust and ambition resonate so well with our present time.

Instead of lengthy and abstruse program notes trying to justify the director's "concept", director David Paul wisely allowed the work to speak for itself. His focus was on the main characters of the drama. The Prologue and extraneous characters were eliminated and certain scenes were played out to highlight the eroticism. For example, Nerone and Poppea play out their drama in bed, for the most part.  And Nerone's homoerotic "song competition" with Lucano became a boxing exercise with a "happy ending". It was clear which man was the "top"! 

Let it be noted, before anyone protests the cuts, that there is really no definitive score remaining from the 1643 Venetian premiere. The opera was reworked several times (like Puccini's Madama Butterfly) before it was lost to oblivion for two centuries.  Since its "rediscovery" it has been performed frequently.

Musical values were excellent and, although the program was strictly "bare bones", we suspect that Maestro David Moody was responsible for the arrangement and the judicious cuts. His boutique baroque ensemble gave us everything we wanted. The string quartet was augmented by a bass, theorbo, and baroque guitar. A piano with a soft sound replaced the harpsichord.  If there were Baroque period purists in the audience, they did not complain. Nor did we. We loved every moment.

For those who do not know the story, it bears no resemblance to the history of 60 AD. The libretto was written by a wealthy poet by the name of Giovanni Francesco Busenello, a leading musical dramatist of the 17th c. One might call his writing that of a cynical realist. It has been suggested that the work, which premiered in Venice during the 1643 Carnevale season, was meant to draw a contrast between Venice and the morally inferior Rome, thus the glorification of lust and ambition depicted in Ancient Rome.

Nerone (Ariadne Greif) has tired of his wife Ottavia (Briana Hunter) and would like to put his mistress Poppea (Maria Lacey) on the throne. Ottone (Vivien Shotwell) is in love with Poppea and suffers intense jealousy, intense enough to try to kill her. Drusilla (Alexandra Smither) is in love with Ottone, enough to help him with his plot and enough to join him in exile when he is pardoned at the end of the opera.  All of the major characters had splendid voices and used them well, particularly in the melismatic passages and in the concitato genere, demonstrating ease with the Baroque style of singing.

Bass Christian Isaiah Simmons made a marvelously dignified Seneca who endured a death far more violent than he did in history. David Charles Tay in female travesti, created the character of a housemaid/confidant to Poppea, wise and nurturing, and with a marvelously resonant voice that made us think "That's what a castrato must have sounded like". We hope, of course, that Mr. Tay did not pay the price!

Timothy Stoddard played the parts of Lucano, most arresting in the boxing/sex scene with Nerone, and of Liberto. Anne Marie Stanley and Max Potter portrayed Nerone's henchmen. The casting was absolutely perfect.

Briana Hunter's Ottavia was sympathetic, in spite of her murderous impulses.  She was tied to the bed by her ankle and sang movingly about the plight of women who give birth to the very people who enslave them. We were happy that she got a second chance to live in exile.

There was no set to speak of in the cold brick-walled playing space at the Blue Building. Plenty of heat was provided by the acting which took place predominantly in two beds--the huge one for the romantic couple and a narrow one for poor Ottavia.

Costume design by Sara Jean Tosetti was contemporary. Poppea wore a mini-length shift which was covered by a diaphanous floor length vest for her coronation. Nerone wore a flashy red jacket. Ottavia wore a leopard print dress.  If we'd read about it beforehand we might have expected to disparage the look-- but actually, everything worked well with the story, even the punk looks adopted by Ottone and Nero's henchmen.

Titles were effectively projected onto beams in the ceiling. Lighting by Anthony Tornambene effectively highlighted the part of the playing area where the action was taking place.

We were completely absorbed for two hours with not a single longueur. We rarely get to see an adaptation that works this well.  More credit to the innovative Bare Opera and their visceral take on this work, bringing a four centuries old opera into the modern age.

(c) meche kroop

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