Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) is one of a couple of candidates for the title of “Father of the Opera” and the only one whose work still gets a look-in on today’s operatic stages. “The Coronation of Poppea,” composed for the season of Carnival in Venice is 1643, is proven still timely today in the production that opened Sunday at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Created for England’s Opera North by director Tim Albery (who also provided the excellent singing translation), the production moves the action to the early 1960s. Few updates work as well as their creators would like to imagine; this “Poppea” is an exception.
The well-born, ambitious Poppea has been working her way up through important men in imperial Rome; her current target is the Emperor Nero, or Nerone. Nerone is smitten with her and, despite the fact that he’s married to Ottavia, declares that he’ll make her his empress that very night. Unfortunately for his victims, that decision includes several murders. Based on historic fact, with a few liberties taken, it’s a little like watching an opera drawn from Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius”: Virtue is anything but triumphant.
The cast is large (there are roles for a number of Gerdine Young Artists and Richard Gaddes Festival Artists, all well-filled), while the orchestra is small (eight players on Baroque instruments, one of them conductor Nicholas Kok, leading from a harpsichord) and placed around the edges onstage. All the performers are comfortable with Baroque musical style, and all are strongly cast.
The story is all about lust, scheming, duplicity and betrayal. Sex (throughout) and violence (mostly at the end, some of it shocking) are a big part of it all; this is not a show for the kiddies.
The title role is sung by mezzo-soprano Emily Fons. She’s an ideal choice for Poppea: She’s got the voice, the looks and the moves for the ambitious empress-wannabe. Her Nerone, tenor Benton Ryan, sang elegantly and made the character’s evolution from spoiled hedonist to overt sociopath thoroughly convincing. Their final duet had none of the usual air of serene triumph; Poppea had just seen what Nero’s capable of.
As the philosopher Seneca, Nerone’s tutor, bass-baritone David Pittsinger sang with vocal depth and found the right blend of serious considerations and self-esteem. Sarah Mesko displayed a fine technique and beautiful mezzo-soprano voice as Ottavia, as well as some imperial attitude. Countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell gave a vocally and dramatically satisfying account of the rejected Ottone; soprano Devon Guthrie was heartbreaking when she realized what she’d given up for him.
There were other notable performances from Patricia Schuman as Poppea’s cynical nurse, Arnalta; Philippe L’Esperance as Lucano, a guard to Nerone who joins him in a giddy, drunken duet; and a trio of minor deities: sopranos Sydney Baedke as a sexy, take-charge Fortune, Jennifer Aylmer as the doomed-to-disappointment Virtue, and mezzo Michaela Wolz as a cocky Amore.
Designer Hannah Clark’s period costumes were spot on. Her set, dominated by a long metal table, resembled the interior of a swimming pool with its tiled walls and ladder; the Danish Modern chairs were a nice touch. Wig and makeup designer Tom Watson got the hairstyles right. That extended to the instrumentalists, with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra first violinist Angie Smart rocking a beehive ‘do. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind brought his customary know-how and excellence to this production.