Thursday, August 29, 2013

Loose Morals and Girly Boys

L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Claudio Monteverdi
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble 
August 24, 2013 – East 13th Street Theater

Photo Credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Why is Italian baroque opera so rarely performed in NYC? We need more Monteverdi (and Vivaldi too while we’re at it). It’s just inexplicable that such perfect, highly entertaining gems remain so neglected. Thank goodness we have enterprising independent opera companies like the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, whose performance of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea delivered a welcome dose of baroque. Orchestration was provided by the Sebastians, an excellent seven-piece chamber ensemble replete with period instruments that worked great in the cozy theater space, however such a wonderfully fiery score would only benefit from a bigger group of instruments. We just can never get enough baroque!

Girls who sing boys who sing girly boys

Photo Credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Lei: The singers were all extremely young, which made their mastery of vocal technique, Italian articulation and expressiveness all the more impressive. Their enthusiasm and dedication in bringing to life such a rarely performed piece was touching in itself, but I was particularly impressed by Greer Davis (soprano), a graceful and fiery Poppea; Alison Cheeseman (mezzo) a very convincing Nero; Hans Tashjian (bass), a deep and expressive Seneca; and Jeffrey Mandelbaum (counter-tenor) as an Ottone of many nuances. The latter is no novice to the baroque scene since he played Ferdinand in the Met's Enchanted Island production.

Photo Credit: Brian Long

Lui: As is characteristic of so much baroque opera, all of the principal roles occupy the higher registers. Hans Tashjian's Seneca is the one main exception. The lower register of his role helped to ground the piece for me. I felt a sigh of relief every time he was on stage. I actually found myself singing along with the chorus in the beginning of the second act when Seneca is coerced to commit suicide, thus depriving us of his soothing low-register melodies for the remainder of the opera. I found myself chanting along with the chorus: Non morire, Seneca, no! Once he is gone we're left with the shrill feminine voices of the core of the cast. While I enjoy the higher registers of the baroque aesthetic, the lower male registers end up becoming a soothing refuge that allows me to breathe.

Irrational tearjerker

Photo Credit: Brian Long
Lei: Although I generally appreciate baroque operas for their exhilarating, energizing and fiery effects, I have to confess that the final duet “Pur ti miro” between Nero and Poppea moved me to a few tears. It was completely irrational: if we look at it from the narrative side, we are talking about the arrogant Roman emperor Nero who is beaming after having just sent into exile his “infrigidita ed infeconda (frigid and barren) wife Ottavia, so that he can marry his hot young lover Poppea – not the most moving of situations. In perfectly baroque fashion, Nero is a castrato role, in this production thankfully performed by a female mezzo-soprano (if you really need to have adult male characters with frilly voices, I’d rather have women play them, sounds less odd), so the “Pur ti miro” aria was a lovey-dovey back and forth between a soprano and a mezzo, again, on paper not the most romantic setting by my standards – men gotta act, look and sound like men. Still, this aria was so overwhelmingly pure and movingly loving that I could not hold back the tears.

Lui: For such a hauntingly beautiful finale, the underlying moral is, in fact, rather unsettling. I felt you tear up at my side, which led me to realize just how emotionally involved I was in that last scene too. As an aria that I have come to appreciate after having studied it in a masterpieces of Western music course in college, my enjoyment of “Pur ti miro” this time was heightened by the fact that it registered with me, that I recognized it intellectually. However, experiencing it in the moral depravation of its full narrative context I was strangely divided. The sheer beauty of the music virtually sugar coats the rather shocking immorality of the story. 

On the entertainment of loose morals

Photo Credit: Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Lei: I was impressed by how unconventional the plot was, particularly for the period (and also for the next couple of operatic centuries). There is no edifying moral, quite the opposite: the overarching concept is that love (or, better, lust) is an overwhelming force, more powerful than virtue and fortune. The opera celebrates one of the worst tyrants in Roman history lusting over his slutty lover (Poppea spends most of the time getting undressed and asking Nero to nickname her breasts) and taking all sorts of unfair actions (such as sending to death his trusted counselor Seneca) to be able to crown her as Roman empress by his side. Throughout the opera, with a climax in the finale, this couple is celebrated as the maximum expression of romantic love. So we can look at this opera as either extremely cynical or revolutionarily romantic – in any event, it’s highly entertaining and musically exciting. 

Lui: It is striking that virtually all of Poppea's scenes take place in the bedroom. We can't forget, however, that the whole opera is framed as a story told by Amore intended to demonstrate his superiority over the forces of Virtù and Fortuna. So, in some way I think that Love is meant to be seen as pulling the strings. Great entertainment, indeed, that keep me hooked all along. 

Circa 1570, by unknown of Fointanbleu School

2012-2013 SEASON RECAP


Photo Credit: Lucie Jansch
Einstein came to Brooklyn.  A year ago Satyagraha cast a meditative spell on me at the Met, this year I remained entranced by the utterly unique experience of watching that bar of light in Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach almost imperceptibly rise to the beat of Glass' signature droning score. If you’ve seen it, you know which bar of light I’m talking about. Brilliant the places it takes you. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced, in completely unexpected ways. Thank you BAM. (Lui)

Photo Credit: Met

Giulio Cesare went to Bollywood (and other places too).  The most delightful and entertaining show of the season.  Not only we got baroque opera, which is in itself too rare a pleasure at the Met, but David McVicar spiced up this Giulio Cesare with Bollywood dances that went beautifully with Handel’s score and he played with times and styles mixing up roman armor, British colonial helmets, flapper fringes and baroque wigs. This pastiche fully worked, making the opera timeless and revamping its core. Also, it was a real pleasure to see Natalie Dessay at the top of her form as a multi-faceted whirlwind of a Cleopatra. Encore, s’il vous plait! (Lei)

Photo Credit: Met
Rigoletto went to Vegas.  If Lucic is singing it, Rigoletto could be staged in a safari in Tanzania and still work. Nobody made me cry more copiously than him this season. His duets with Damrau were the quintessential heartbreaking expression of father-daughter love and in Cortigiani vil razza dannata he was deep, raging and moving at the same time. On top of the extraordinary singing, the bold Vegas setting was refreshing and actually worked in unexpected ways. The Met should take these risks (and get Lucic) more often. (Lei)

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Mosè in the digital desert.  With their production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, NYC Opera is responsible for the most visionary staging of the year that made so very much out of what deceptively seemed like so little. The animated computer generated projections and use of rotating platforms on the stage floor were responsible for many surprising effects that I found dynamic and extremely captivating. Director Michael Counts and his production team are pointing the way to something new. His is a vision rife with possibility for future productions in this mold. (Lui

Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Eliogabalo brought sexy back.  It didn’t get much hotter than Gotham Chamber Opera’s titillating production of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo at the Box. The whole thing exuded sex. Gyrating virtually nude female torsos greeted the audience as they arrived. The emperor worked the catwalk that was set up through the center of the nightclub like a glam rocker. But the steamy sensuality of the whole thing was just icing on the delicious cake of Cavalli’s baroque score. Particularly memorable amongst the singers were Christopher Ainslie’s Ziggy Stardust of an Eliogabalo and Emily Grace Righter’s Alessandro. (Lui)

Image Credit: Opera Mission
Rodrigo (finally) made it to a NYC Hotel.  Rodrigo was Handel's first opera written for performance in Italy in 1707 but premiered in the U.S. only in May 2013. Opera Mission brought this baroque jewel to American life in the intimate lobby of the Gershwin hotel, with a committed cast of singers and a wonderful period orchestra. Second’s act thumping bass “Siete assai superbe, o stelle” by the tormented king Rodrigo was a great surprise of pure baroque fiery power. I hope there are many other hidden eighteen-century operas out there and more companies like Opera Mission to dig them out for us. (Lei)


Photo Credit: Met
Elisir lost its magic powers.  Gala openings should make a statement, either showcasing rarely performed pieces or revisiting old favorites in a new light. Elisir is my favorite Donizetti and I am still quite upset with the Met for having missed an opportunity to make it extraordinary at the underwhelming September 2012 season opening, that did not bring anything remotely new to the table and was certainly not gala material. Netrebko and Kwiecien were as usual quite good but not enough to save the production. Here’s to the Met redeeming itself with Eugene Onegin this next September 23rd. (Lei)

Image Credit: New York City Opera
Too much Powder [on] Her Face.  The NYC Opera had its hits and its misses this season. Their production of Adès’ Powder Her Face at BAM missed the mark. Jay Schreib and his team simply had too many ideas, too much going on, too many distractions packed into their staging rather than just let the varied and idiosyncratic music breathe. (Lui)

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg 
La Perichole & Jim Carrey.  Turning an opera buffa into a stupid screwball comedy will always be a turn off for me. No matter how good everything else may be, I just cannot forgive NYC Opera having its singers act like they’re in the dumbest of Jim Carrey’s movies. (Lei)