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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Superconductor Interview: Victoria Crutchfield

The director brings L'Incoronazione di Poppea to Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fresco from the Villa de Poppaea at Oplontis in southern Italy.
This house was built for her by the Roman Emperor Nero.
Can an opera from 1642 work in today's culture? That's the question facing director Victoria Crutchfield. Her new production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea ("The Coronation of Poppaea") is part of Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's 10th anniversary Summer Repertoire Project. Superconductor had time for a few quick words with the director, whose production opens at the E. 13th St. Theater.

If you've never been to a Dell'Arte performance, they're not long on production value. The shows are simple, with two lonely rocks standing in for the Greek island of Naxos, a collection of chairs, tables and yellow police tape provided the setting of last year's Carmen. However, the tight budget and Spartan values encourage directors to be creative and to put the focus on what's really important: the singers.

"I actually find working in a black box very liberating," Ms. Crutchfield says. "This is a nice, roomy black box, so it doesn't feel more crowded than a small proscenium stage. In fact, more of the stage is more useable more of the time, because the acoustics are good and allow people to be heard no matter what direction they're singing in. There are no wings to "eat" the sound."

"With audience on two sides, anywhere you're standing on stage is a great place for someone in the audience to see you. Of course, it's also true that in every stage picture, someone in the audience is missing something-- but I find that sort of fun and democratic. There's no Royal Box in this theater."

Poppea is a court drama chronicling the rise of a Roman noblewoman, her illicit love for the Emperor Nero, and her rise to Empress. It was the first opera to portray real people instead of mythological characters, although the actions of the characters are presented as representing an allegorical conflict between classical deities. Ms. Crutchfield relishes the challenge of making this antiquated story relevant for a contemporary New York audience.

She points out that too often, opera-goers have seen the same show over and over again, while others come to the opera for their first experience with Monteverdi. "I think what makes Poppea engaging at a first viewing--and hopefully also at a hundredth--is the humanity of the characters. Not that much actually "happens" in this opera. But we meet a lot of characters and get a glimpse into their inner lives as they cope with situations that are really very common--once you subtract the Roman empire, murder, and interfering deities! In that way it's really a lot like some of the TV series that are popular now, like Mad Men."

"Early operas are so dramaturgically different from later ones-- even from Handel," she says. "This opera is really a play that Monteverdi has directed by giving it musical line-readings. We have to collaborate with that direction, but still it provides much less guidance than the direction of a later composer. There's more room to play, and the individual performer leaves a greater mark on the character. The musical decisions and the dramatic decisions are also completely interdependent. This is great fun, of course, but it's a very different process from working on, say, Puccini, and it can be hard to ease in to a new process. I think that has been the biggest challenge, but an invigorating one."

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