Monteverdi’s “Poppea” in Los Angeles: As Good as It Gets


By David Gregson: LOS ANGELES (Dec. 3, 2006)

First, a note to impatient readers: The cast of Los Angeles Opera’s current Monteverdi venture is as good as it gets. It absolutely could not be improved upon, and all the singers, including long-time diva Frederica von Stade, are in top form. The orchestra, conducted by Harry Bicket, plays superbly. The whole production must be accounted one of the top “early music” events to occur this year in California. The fact that the handsome production with its occasionally stylized and perversely contrary-to-common-sense stage direction does little to clarify the story or increase the dramatic impact is only a minor annoyance.

Now —

If the passion for authenticity did not so consistently get in the way of musical performance, we might have a version of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1642 celebration of ancient Roman decadence, L’incoronazione di Poppea ("The Coronation of Poppea"), sumptuously scored for a large orchestra, rich with strings, winds, brass and percussion. Well — at the very least, rich with strings. It’s been done. I know. I heard such a thing once. And very lovely it was too!

Unfortunately, nobody truly knows what the hell Monteverdi really intended. Perhaps the whole opera was accompanied by a single lute. As for the vocal lines, those are open to scholarly controversy as well. And, further muddying the bloody waters of Nero’s corrupt empire, not to mention the crystalline streams of Renaissance scholarship, it’s highly likely somebody else composed this-or-that bit here-and-there.

So, the purist’s L’incoronazione di Poppea truly exists only in the mind. If you take that attitude, there’s really hardly any point in going out to see and hear an actual production of the thing. Nobody will ever get it right.

But, somebody will try – to be sure. And is trying right now, in fact. Los Angeles Opera is the one – though in some ways, you would think the LAO would be the last place on earth to find an austere, instrumentally spare version of anything. Didn’t the LAO dazzle its star-struck audience once with Zefferelli’s super-caloric overstuffed Pagliacci?

Yes, but in the very same season (1996 to 1997), it also put on an “authentic” production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, featuring Frederica van Stade’s unforgettably moving performance as Penelope. The fact that the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is a vast space (3,086 seats) where chamber opera must struggle to make an impression did not discourage the management from this earlier venture (1996-1997 season), nor from this one. My review of that show appears below. (Way below!)

We did not get anything like Raymond Leppard’s sumptuous strings (to be heard on his recording of the opera), but with early music specialist Harry Bicket heading the proceedings from his harpsichord, we strained to hear as the Los Angeles Opera splurged outrageously. We had three theorbos, baroque guitar, baroque harp, gamba, lirone, and, of course, the harpsichord, plus a portable organ. The strings, to be exact, were six in number: two violins, two viola, violone and baroque cello.

I was seated far front – and loved the experience. (No ear strain for me personally.) What others in the huge auditorium heard, I cannot say, but the Sunday matinee I attended was enthusiastically received. Remarkable! Especially considering the fact that the opera ran for 4 hours and five minutes with two intermissions. And it required an awful lot of reading. Few people know this score so well that they can break free of the Supertitles. For one thing, there are a zillion characters – and stage director Pierre Audi and scene designer Michael Simon have only their own aesthetic agendas to promote. Needless to say, these agendas do not include clarifying the action of the plot or making locations specific and/or historically accurate. The music may be authentic, but the directorial and design concepts are abstract and nearly irrelevant to the opera. One has to really like this sort of stuff – and my only sigh of relief came from the fact that nothing was as anal and self-absorbed as the productions of Robert Wilson.

Oh, I admit these contemporary opera productions are beautiful to look at, but they are all vanity shows glorifying the producers at the expense of the music and the drama. Even something as simple as having a love duet in which the two lovers face one another is compulsively undermined by director Audi. Sitting up close, I could see that the superb and glamorous Poppea (Susan Graham) and the magnificently sensual Nero (Kurt Streit) would have liked to have been looking at once another in their famous final duet, but that they had been ordered to do something else. Dammit, Audi! Just leave these two brilliant singer/actors alone and they will be just fine.

And that goes for everybody else too.

Despite the director, everybody glowed vocally and displayed plenty of involvement with their characters. The Ottone(David Daniels) was virtually flawless, the Ottavia (von Stade) tapped deep wells of feeling which she projected in that gorgeous, familiar timbre (only slightly diminished), the Seneca (Reinhard Hagen) commanded the stage with that kind of vocal resonance that leaves you thinking — what else would I loved to hear this singer in. Also fabulous – Christine Brandes as a Drusilla of kaleidoscopic emotions, Christopher Gillet, simply superb as an Arnalta (but forced you maintain Robert Wilson-like postures), and—well just go down the cast list. Lots of people deserve lots of praise.

CAST:
Susan Graham: POPPEA
Frederica von Stade: OCTAVIA
Kurt Streit: NERONE
David Daniels: OTTONE
Reinhard Hagen: SENECA
Christine Brandes: DRUSILLA
Jill Grove: NUTRICE
Christopher Gillett: ARNALTA
Keith Jameson: VALLETTO
Tonna Miller: FORTUNA
Hanan Alattar: AMOR / DAMIGELLA
Stacey Tappan: VIRTU / PALLADE
Levi Hernandez: MERCURIO / 1ST TRIBUNE
Nicholas Phan: 1ST SOLDIER / LUCANO / 2ND FRIEND / 1ST CONSUL
Daniel Montenegrol: 2ND SOLDIER / LIBERTO / 2ND FRIEND
Benjamin Von Atrops: LITTORE / 3RD FRIEND / 2ND TRIBUNE /

CONDUCTOR: Harry Bicket
DIRECTOR: Pierre Audi
SET DESIGNER: Michael Simon (Production from The Netherlands Opera.)
COSTUME DESIGNER: Emi Wada
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Jean Kalman

4 hours 15 minutes

Sung in Italian with English Supertitles

PRODUCTION DATES:
Saturday November 25, 2006 7:00 p.m.
Thursday November 30, 2006 7:00 p.m.
Sunday December 3, 2006 2:00 p.m.
Thursday December 7, 2006 7:00 p.m.
Sunday December 10, 2006 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday December 13, 2006 7:00 p.m.
Saturday December 16, 2006 7:00 p.m.

————————————————–
The Los Angeles Music Center Opera is observing the "400th Anniversary of
Opera" (how sweet!) with performances of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1640
masterpiece, "The Return of Ulysses" ("Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria"), one
of the earliest operas still to hold the stage. This particular production
was originally mounted at the Netherlands Opera as part of its Monteverdi
Cycle ("Il combattimento di Tancredi e Cloridna," "Il Ritorno…",
"L’incoronazione di Poppea" and "Orfeo") given between 1990 and 1995, and is
the same production presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993.

If you live anywhere in or near the LA area — you will not want to miss
this incredibly beautiful experience in musical theater. There are several
more dates open: May 10, 13, 16 and 18at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion..
Thomas Allen and Frederica von Stade are certainly among the greatest
interpreters of the two leading roles, and the remainder of the casting is
superb through and through.

Cast:
Penelope: FREDERICA von STADE
Ulysses: THOMAS ALLEN
L’Humana fragilita: DAVID DANIELS
Il Tempo: KENNETH COX
La Fortuna: TIHANA HERCEG
Amore: ELISSA JOHNSTON
Melanto, Penelope’s Maid: TIHANA HERCEG
Eurimaco, Melamto’s Lover: JORGE GARZA
Minerva: PAULA RASMUSSEN
Eumete, a swineherd: JACQUE TRUSSEL
Iro, a glutton and stutterer: JOHN DUYKERS
Telemaco, Ulysses’ son: CARLO SCIBELLI
Antinoo, a suitor to Penelope: KENNETH COX
Pisancdro, another suitor: JONATHAN MACK
Anfinomo, yet another: DAVID DANIELS

Conductor: GLEN WILSON
Director: PIERRE AUDI
Associate Director: WIM TROMPERT
Set Designer: JORGE JARA
Lighting Designer: JEAN KALMAN

Can a diva be "demented" in Monteverdi? (My adjective derives from Ethan
Mordden’s entertaining book , "Demented.") I’ve seen many demented divas in
my time — Callas, Gencer, Rysanek. Olivero among others — do their magic
overachieving thing in the bel canto and verismo and Wagner/Strauss
repertoire. After last night I’d have to add Frederica von Stade to my list
— the leading demented diva of the narrow Monteverdi canon. Von Stade’s
Penelope, perfected over many years of experience (she has been singing the
part at least since 1976 when she debuted at New York City Opera) is of
searing intensity. Her thorough mastery of the part (no prompters in this
production!) and her sense of total involvement is thrillingly apparent.
She has you weeping in the first five minutes following her initial
appearance. Watching her move, watching her act, hearing her sing (often in
a beautiful low-lying area of her voice I’ve heard too infrequently before),
is among the greatest experiences I have had in the musical theater. I’d
previously held Janet Baker as the finest exponent of this role, but now I
have to hand the crown to von Stade.

Thomas Allen has just celebrated his 25th year with Britain’s Royal Opera
Covent Garden . I’ve been fortunate enough to hear him many times in his
distinguished career — and I would rate his Ulysses among his very finest
achievements. Everthing is perfectly thought out. Like von Stade, he has the
opportunity to show everything his voice can do. He explores every dynamic
possibility, every degree of shading. ( A subtle change of timbre for his
old man disguise, for instance.) And he projects every word with perfect
clarity and obvious understanding. He also gamely does everything
outrageous the director asks of — such as lying "asleep" downstage for 25
minutes before singing one note.

The whole opera is fabulousIy well cast. I have rarely heard so many people
singing so beautifully for so long a time as in this "Il ritorno d’Ulisse in
patria". Countertenors are not my favorite breed, but Daniels sings with an
uncommon sweetness of tone. Cox thrills with his basso profondo. Rasmussen,
lovely to behold, produces a sound of remarkable purity with an astounding
dynamic range and appealing agility. Duykers is one of the best character
tenors performing these days. (We’ve been lucky to have him in San Diego
several times recently). My opera companion found something negative to say
about one of the characters and seemed very pleased with himself — but I
was disarmed of all criticism.

I suspect that this Monteverdi work — generally perceived to be a
monotonous chain of recitative unrelieved by arias — is not a favorite of
many Opera-L readers. Several of my friends refused to go. (As the rave
reviews continue to appear, I think they’re feeling a little sorry.) In
fact, on paper this production seemed more than a bit scary! The music was
to be furnished by Professor Glen Wilson, director of the Music Angerlica, a
LA-based early-music group. The pit held only 10 players! The instruments:
a variety of recorders, two archlutes, two violins, two violas, violone
(don’t ask) and a cello. The enormous archlutes provided the continuo. So,
you see — the emphasis was on the text. The voices and dramatic skills of
the singers are very much the most important thing. In some reconstructions
of this work (there are a number of them), the strings can be quite lush.
And then there’s the Hans Werner Henze version, for Heaven’s sake! But in
this version, minimalism and austerity are the rule.

It’s amazing, however, how much variety Monteverdi packs into his monodic
musical lines, how wonderfully expressive it all is. And if you pay
attention, you can hear frequent arioso passages — and even a few madrigals.

The physical production is so sensational that many people are flocking to
the Pavilion for that reason alone. The set looks like a harmonious
collection of (frankly rather ugly) modern sculpture. There’s a big concave
curve of a teak wood thing on the right, with two big beams coming out of
it. There’s a huge rock of the type rock climbers practice on (sort of),
and it mysteriously moves off stage midway through the opera. (Why? "Faith
can move mountains," I suppose.) Theres a big coppery curved thing on the
right, a catwalk (never used) suspended in the air, a long gutter of sand
stretching from a lighted candle mid stage to a ramp extending over the pit
stage right. Ten-foot poles jut from the earth here and there. Later there
are some wooden dining tables at the back, and a central copper column.

Weee–ll. I don’t know. Is this "Eurokitsch" or what? That’s the big
question. I found it handsome to look at — but I’ve seen a number of
things in Europe not too terribly different from this.

Still, the way this no-man’s-land playing area is used is what makes
everything work. The characters come and go with a uniform, agonizing
slowness — like Noh theater. (Well, maybe not THAT slow.) The stately,
slow movement seems symbolic of the inevitable unfolding of events in time.
The blocking (placement and distribution of the characters and their
movements) is formal and elegant. The beautiful costumes, with their
sometimes plain, sometimes shimmeringly velvety textures, seemed inspired
by, though not copied from Greek vases.

There’s at least one fairly stunning special effect. When Ulysses shoots
the suitors, real fire shoots up all along the backstage area. Metal panels
crash down with a clatter, and end up hanging precariously from chains.
(Something like this deafening "collapsing house" effect was the "coup de
theatre" of Diana Rigg’s London "Medea" which I saw a few years ago.)

And animal activists should really be getting their pickets out — since
this show has a real live eagle playing the part of Jupiter. (He doesn’t
sing, by the way.) Wadda eagle, though! Great wing span.

In fact, non-singing gods are one of the problems. About one third of the
opera is cut — especially all the bits with the gods going on endlessly. I
suppose we should be thankful, but this production was otherwise so
memorable that it’s seems a shame they didn’t "go the distance."

The plot, by the way, is psychologically profound in so many ways. I am
especially moved by the ending. After all her waiting for her husband to
return, Penelope can hardly accept him when he finally shows up. He’s just
murdered everybody in sight, and she’s not certain it’s the same man.
Monteverdi’s librettist shows the characters working this problem out. At
the last second, Penelope’s heart opens — and husband and wife embrace in a
sudden, stunning final tableau.

The sophisticated audience Thursday night was attentive, quiet — good as
gold. At the end everybody went crazy. I was looking around for Mirella
Freni! No. The crowd was going crazy for von Stade, Allen and the whole
darn thing. To the right and left of me there were cries of, "Well, I
thought I was going to hate it, but I loved it!" A fine victory for

Monteverdi — and a great evening of musical theater.

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