Annija Dziesma Teteris, Eva Rae Martinez, Elizabeth Pope, and Angelina Yi
(Photo by Rezi Aliaj)
Henry Griffin and Feihong Yu
(photo by meche kroop)
David Freides and William Wake Foster
(photo by meche kroop)
If you wanted to introduce someone to opera, you could not have done better than to take them to see and hear a completely captivating production of Monteverdi's masterpiece L'incoronazione di Poppea, a work created for mid-17th c. Venice during Carnevale. We could go on for pages about scholarly disputes but we prefer to discuss our rapturous joy at the entertainment value and our astonishment by the astounding talents of the cast, drawn from Manhattan School of Music's Undergraduate Opera Theater. Yes, you read that right!
Musical values were first-rate on all accounts with Maestro Jackson McKinnon leading his chamber orchestra, half-hidden behind the simple set (designed by James Rotondo). Judicious cuts were made but there was no loss of continuity. The vocalism left nothing to be desired and the fact that these undergraduates handled the challenges of baroque singing with such aplomb is a source of astonishment.
Librettist Giovanni Busenello created characters from Roman history and bent their characteristics and fates to his own devices, telling a story of the triumph of love in the person of Cupid winningly portrayed by Angelina Yi; she interrupts a competitive quarrel between Virtue (Sara Nichole Stevens) and Fortune (Sophia Strang) and recounts the story proving that Love supersedes everything else.
Drusilla (winsomely portrayed by Feihong Yu) is enamored of Ottone (the dramatically hilarious Henry Griffin); he is crazy about the beautiful Poppea (portrayed by the beautiful Eva Rae Martinez) who is passionately in love with the Emperor Nerone (Elizabeth Pope) who returns her lust to the detriment of his rejected wife Ottavia (performed in drag by David Freides to the great amusement of the audience).
Without any prompting from the director we had our own associations to a certain political figure who also might have said "I care nothing for the senate and the people". Given the freedom to let our thoughts wonder we couldn't help thinking of the lamenting Countess in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. Unlike the Countess, Ottavia is vengeful and blackmails Ottone into killing her rival Poppea,for whom he has the hots. Poor Drusilla is dragged into the plot and the cross-dressing that ensues is cause for more amusement.
We have no idea how the audience of the time took this work but perhaps, with knowledge of the unhappy ends suffered by all the characters, they saw the work as ironic. Although the ending is relatively happy, with Poppea being crowned Empress and Ottavia, Drusilla, and Ottone being exiled, it lacks historical verisimilitude, but reaffirms the triumph of love.
Now, looking at how a 21st c. audience sees the work, that is in the hands of the director; in this case we have the imaginative Chloe Treat, whose last name describes our reception of the production. Although we have protested vociferously against trashing the classics of the canon by means of "concept", we have no such compunction about long forgotten works that have no prior emotional investment for us. Indeed, we have enjoyed a number of productions of this opera in the past ten years (available by entering the name of the opera in the search bar) and this one is the most original.
Lacking a television, we did not realize the style was meant to be that of reality television, a fact we only learned after the opera by reading the program notes. Lacking that knowledge did not impair our appreciation of the humor in any way and we look forward to seeing more of Ms. Treat.
The contributions of Costume Designer Fan Zhang added greatly to the style of the show. Poppea lounged around in Schiaparelli pink fuzzy slippers and skimpy shift. For the coronation she rocked a slinky red gown. Drusilla and Ottone wore the same Little Bo-Peep dress in their plot to kill Poppea. The philosopher Seneca (sung in wonderful bass tones by William Wake Foster) sported a sequined jacket with little red hearts which was appropriated by Cupid. Other characters wore black tee shirts and trousers which set off the more colorful costumes.
Among them were two "cosmeticians" serving Poppea and Ottavia--Arnalta (Caspian Noble Fernholz) and Damigella (Angelina Bush). Mercury (Brian Kim) came to announce Seneca's death in a suit and tie- reminiscent of the "Todesverkündigung" in Wagner's Die Walküre. Charlotte Jakobs and Isaac Hall added even more merriment as fumbling security guards.
There was a lot of risqué humor but nothing the kiddies haven't seen on TV. There was an abundance of glorious melody, culminating in the final duet between Poppea and Nero-"Pur ti miro, pur ti godo". Where else have we had this much fun at the opera?
© meche kroop