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


  1. Brava! Nicely written. We are both reviewing the same opera!

  2. On the topic of operatic girly boys, the always entertaining Sir Denis Forman has an interesting suggestion:

    "Counterntenors and male altos can be frightfully refined singers but they are milk-and-water stuff in comparison to a real tenor and however skillfully they pipe away in their head-voices or falsettos, it is generally much better to transpose the castrato part down one octave and give it to a tenor with balls and the hell with the purists. To give the part to a female is not a good option either, for who can believe in a female Roman emperor, general or brigand? Also, the sexual chemistry of the piece is destroyed by having two women who are clearly not lesbians making love to each other. Or if it seems they are lesbians, then's even more confusing."

    – "A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to The Plots, The Singers, The Composers, The Recordings," Modern Library, 1998, p. 853.