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Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: In "The Coronation of Poppea," a searing examination of amorality in high places

The Emperor nuzzles his main squeeze, Poppea.
The severe look of the set in the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of the earliest opera to stay in the repertory focuses on the timeless nature of its alarming themes: sex and power.

"The Coronation of Poppea"  is being presented in the performing version that stage director Tim Albery put together with Laurence Cummings. Since Albery's explicit English translation is also used, that amounts to a very strong individual  filter through which contemporary audiences here will be taking in Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 opera. The remaining performances are June 22, 26, and 28.

Hannah Clark's costumes, modern dress and business-appropriate, never seem jarring.  Everything about the social milieu of first-century Rome is so remote from us that staying visually true to the period is irrelevant.  What remains of core interest is the persistence of misdirected love, betrayal, intrigue, and willfulness on the part of the power elite and underlings alike.

Her set, with a clinically modern long table on casters being the centerpiece, adapts well to several  purposes. It reduces each of them — banquet setting, romantic trysting place, killing floor, and meeting place — to their  essentials.
There's a large wall along  the back with a ladder up to its summit.  It's a world of barriers and limited access. The most humanly accessible sight is, with delicate irony, the setup for two ensembles on either side of the stage. The warm, seductive  support  the instruments lend to the ceaseless vocal lines oddly reassures the audience that there is a place for cooperative, benign teamwork in life. In the work itself, there is certainly no act that's free of fear or ambition.
Amore proclaims control at the start of "Poppea."
Nicholas Kok  conducts through limited  gesture, mostly head nods, while seated at one of  the two  harpsichords; Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek mans the other.  The companions of each of these essential keyboard instruments are (using Francoeur-Krzyzek's informal terms) the "pluckers" (theorbo, guitar, harp) on one side and the "bowers" (two violins, lirone, viola da gamba) on the other.

The title role is filled to the hilt of sensually applied ambition by soprano Emily Fons. Her vocal and physical allure were daringly blended, and it was clear what a  hold this Poppea was capable of exerting on the weak, vain emperor Nero (the Italian version of the name, Nerone, is used throughout). Nero's turbulent, bloody reign as the leader of the world's most powerful political entity is legendary, thanks to the historian Tacitus.  
As Nero, Brenton Ryan is a wiry tenor who makes himself  fully capable of the emperor's impulsive, passionate behavior, which runs from lust to cruelty and back again. As seen at a matinee performance June 15, he commanded unwavering attention every time he was  onstage. He was  believably in charge of everybody. As his guards, Philippe L'Esperance and Matthew Cairns made clear that their willingness  to serve as Nero's henchmen was tempered in his absence by their cynicism and fear.

Ottone entertains murderous thoughts.
The  corrosive effect  of always serving oneself is represented with chilling comic effect by Arnalta, Poppea's nurse. As sung with majestic authority by Patricia Schuman, a soprano with plenty of mezzo heft in her tone, Arnalta is capable of both upbraiding and advising the woman she serves while later licking her chops at the prospect of her boss's replacing Ottavia, Nerone's wife and Rome's Empress.  Sarah Mesko played Ottavia with a sense of entitlement that fuels her  growing indignation at her  rival's rise and her  husband's  infidelity.

Rivalry on the other side has Ottone, a role well taken by countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell, in a
constant condition of fretfulness. The timbre of  the male alto voice aptly conveys the whining that Ottone  is accused of, but the way Scott-Cowell  handled this never verged on caricature. Ottone's attempt to mimic sincerity in returning Drusilla's affection for him was perfectly simulated by the countertenor's tense dialogue with Devon Guthrie as the hapless Drusilla. 

One supporting role sums up the limited resistance to Nero's whims. It's that of the  philosopher Seneca, who continues to uphold the value of rational leadership beyond prudence. David Pittsinger raised the role far beyond victimhood with  his stalwart bass-baritone, giving it such stature that we are all the more grateful that Seneca's death by execution takes place offstage. Poppea has doomed  him  by putting  before her lover a set of  "alternative facts" that seal Nero's annoyance with the philosopher and all that he represents.

 David Pittsinger as Seneca tries to uphold reasonagainst  overwhelming odds.
Lending a bit of abstract delight to the story are the  occasional appearances and commentary of  three mythological figures: Fortuna, Virtu, and  Amore.  Virtue's pleadings are a total loss in such an atmosphere,  as Jennifer Aylmer's  picture of futility made clear.  Fate, confidently represented by Sydney Baedke, strides initially onto the stage confident of her customary rule over human affairs. But the story turns  out,  of course,  to  be fully under  the supervision  of Love.  In a nice tweaking of the traditional representation  of  Cupid, Michaela Wolz, skipping around wearing  a baseball cap backwards, triumphantly represented the affairs of the heart that often hold the upper hand whenever humanity abandons ethical or rational control.
 "The Coronation of Poppea" is a lengthy lesson in the result of that abandonment. The boldness of the characters' motivations and their readiness to turn intent into fateful action moves forward on a stream of early Baroque melody, a blend of what would become the separate functions of recitative and aria as opera matured by the 18th century. In its early phase, however, there is plenty of propitious mastery to admire, and it throbs with life in this production.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Teamwork at an exalted comic level in 'The Marriage of Figaro'

My earliest  memory of opera is seeing a bit of "The Marriage of Figaro" on a neighbor's black-and-white TV. Broadcast on a Philadelphia station in an era when mass communications didn't shy away from art, I saw the moment when Susanna, Figaro's fiancee, summons the page Cherubino to submit to being outfitted in her own clothes in order to help thwart Count Almaviva's designs upon her.

"Come, kneel down before me," Susanna sings, proceeding to relay instructions that will allow her to recostume the smitten teenager. My impression  has remained with me over some 65 years as a useful revelation: Opera can convey ordinary actions — the details of getting  someone else dressed — as magically as high-flown matters, I realized.  I didn't learn until much later that Cherubino's disguise was an essesntial building block in a fantastic comic edifice. And I only gradually became acquainted with the many splendors of opera in full.

The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Mozart's sublime comedy, which I saw June 16, finesses the vast bridging of implausible machinations and misunderstandings on the one hand and, on the other, the everyday emotions around love common to most of us and our sense of what we deserve and what else we presume to appropriate, whether we are deserving or not.

Directed by Mark Lamos with a fluidity and verve worthy of Lorenzo di Ponte's effervescent libretto and Mozart's insightful, resourceful score, the production grasps unreservedly the opera's realism and fantasy alike. Religion is at a far remove, and there isn't a touch of the supernatural as the ceremony named in the title takes a serpentine path toward realization.

Everything moves so fast that it's hard to check lines you've just heard (in Andrew Porter's witty, eminently singable translation) against one of OTSL's supertitle screens. You look up, and the line is gone. Conductor Christopher Allen deserves credit for representing the tempos well while keeping the pace from being headlong.  At first the orchestra seemed a little too loud for the singers. In Cherubino's introductory arietta, in which he restlessly declares how adolescent pangs have taken him over, the murmuring orchestra found a suitable dynamic level. From then on, I had no problem with  its prominence; it could be I simply adjusted the balance in my mind's ear as I was swept away by the action and the music.

More to  the point is that there was no rushing through the several moments where a reflective mood must prevail.  Notably among them were the two times when the Countess sings of  her loneliness as her husband seems (on good  evidence) to have lost interest in her; they are the arias known from the original as "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono."  In Susanna Biller, the orchestra, in which Allen also played harpsichord, had an excellent soprano to support, both dignified and passionate in her characterization. A tempo contrast even more vital,  given its rare solemnity, is the disgraced Count's plea for pardon in the last act and its confirmation by choral ensemble. The passage is worthy of Mozart's sacred music; it was given larger-than-life poignancy Sunday night.

The overture, known in a concert setting better than any other of Mozart's opera overtures, unfolded briskly, with Lamos withholding his  directorial hand for a while, as the audience listened and feasted its eyes on the Fragonard-inspired, lightly erotic panels that were soon  to be  turned around for the first scene of the well-furnished room the newlyweds hoped soon to occupy. Once the major and minor players were introduced en masse  as the overture swirled to its conclusion, they cavorted among the huge panels like lascivious sheep on a  hillside, hooking up briefly but suggestively. The mood in which trivial liaisons can be taken for more serious ones was thus aptly established before a note was sung. In just a few minutes, we became mentally prepared for all sorts  of unpredictable shenanigans. The disorientation served even those of us who already knew the story.

The different interpretations of their prospects by  the central romantic couple, Figaro and Susanna, were nicely counterpointed in the opening scene. Immediately the vocal and acting skills of Aubrey Allicock and Monica Dewey burst into realization.  Their fitness never wavered. They were equal in  every expression to the travails their young love must endure as the randy Count threatens to make a budding bride his own for one night, reviving the ancient "droit de seigneur."  His roving eye proves to be a constant irritation to anyone connected with his estate, unless they can find ways to turn it to their advantage. Circumstances tend to work in the nuptial couple's favor and to the disadvantage of the rapacious Count.

Theo Hoffman dashingly played the Count whose nefarious designs are constantly obstructed or rerouted. Vocally he was distinguished at every turn. Biller was his equal, making the Countess a credible opponent and eventually an exemplar of fidelity. The secondary senior couple, whose closeness remains a secret till near the end, was just as well matched: Nathan Stark as Doctor Bartolo and MaryAnn McCormack as Marcellina, his housekeeper (and so much more). Both characters abandon their carefully nurtured but futile plans of blocking the marriage of Figaro and Susanna. In this production they are presented as more than figures of fun. Marcellina, especially, went way beyond the fretful harridan of some performances in McCormack's sturdy representation.
Also well suited to giving three-dimensionality to roles that can be trivialized were Samantha Gossard as the twitchily ardent Cherubino, whose needs are a kind of intense cartoon version of the Duke's, and John McVeigh as the music teacher Don Basilio, a connoisseur of gossip whose florid gestures were reminders of the blithe world evoked by Fragonard and Watteau, which Paul Steinberg draws upon in his set design.

Crucial contributions to the plot come from Antonio, the estate's gardener, and his daughter, Barbarina — roles taken with picturesque vitality by Phillip Lopez and Elena Villalon.

The entire cast, from the principals and their support down through nameless peasants and villagers, worked together superbly.  The large handful of characters given distinction by Mozart's music and da Ponte's words retained their individuality in ensembles. There was no generic plant-your-feet-and-sing staging, except where it was  appropriate in the final chorus. That's when a collective celebration of love and conflict resolution unravels every plot twist and sets the comedy down on a firm moral basis at last.

OTSL has two more performances of "The Marriage of Figaro," on June 19 and 29, in the Loretto-Hilton Theater at Webster University, Webster Groves.

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