|Poppaea Sabina, Empress of Rome|
L'incoronazione de Poppea is Claudio Monteverdi's final opera. He died less than a year after its Venice premiere in 1643. On Thursday night, Juilliard's sexually charged new production showed that the first master of opera laid the groundwork for everything that followed.
Looking for sensuous arias that prefigure bel canto? They're here. Plot twists, assassination attempts, cross-dressing? Poppea has all those things. The first opera to eschew mythology for historical events, Poppea is the story of the Roman Emperor Nero and his attempts to upgrade his marriage. His intent: to replace his loving wife Ottavia with Poppea, ancient Rome's answer to Amy Fisher.
The student cast met the opera's decadence with a lush performance that caressed the ears for three hours. Korean soprano Haeran Hong made the most of Poppea, singing the high-lying music with a clear, sparkling instrument. She was ably matched with Cecilia Hall, in trousers and splendid mezzo voice as Nerone. In this opera, rampant lust leads to gorgeous duets. The Act II love scene where Poppea shaved Nero with a straight razor (while they're singing) explored the twisted depths of their relationship and produced the loveliest melodies of the evening.
Poppea has a complex cast of Roman politicians, mistresses, gigolos, would-be assassins, and even gods. As Ottavia, Naomi O'Connell has a bright, diamond-hard soprano which reflected her tenuous state in Nero's court. Nick Zammit's handsome countertenor suited the hapless Ottone, who gets suckered into the assassination plot. Devon Guthrie sang with warmth and lyric power as Drusilla, whose attempt to take the fall for the cross-dressing Ottone nearly lands her in Nero's torture chamber.
Liam Moran made a fine impression as Seneca, the philosopher and Roman senator who is rewarded for his hard work tutoring Nero with a death sentence. This might be the first serious role for a bass in the operatic repertory, and Mr. Moran hit some splendid low notes in his death scene. At the other end of the spectrum, tenor Daniel Curran nearly stole the evening as Poppea's female attendant Arnalta. He sang the role in full drag (a la Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie) and provided much-needed comic relief amidst all the backstabbing.
This production has opted for Roman columns, cafe tables and modern dress for its leads. The gods leap on and offstage, interfering with the already complex lives of the mortals. The modern dress makes the drama seem more relevant, and allows the cast to make the most of the gender-bending nature of casting Monteverdi in an age where there are no longer castrati.
Harry Bickett led the Juilliard415 Musicians. Conducting from the harpsichord, he lead a crisp, tight performance that made this opera's long running time fly by for the listener as the plot unfolded. This is one of the essential period-music performances of the fall season, and a chance to see one of the most brilliant, original operas ever written. Monteverdi was a genius. And with Poppea, he set the bar for everything that followed.