Twenty years ago, when I first started going to the opera, I discovered that the scores written by some composers were infinitely more accessible than those written by others. Richard Strauss's operas were wonderfully noisy and perverse; Rossini's musical comedies bright and bubbly. If operas written by Gounod, Verdi, Puccini, and Donizetti were particularly easy to grasp it was, no doubt, because they were filled with so many easily recognizable tunes.
Ironically, during my early days of operagoing, it was Mozart and Wagner who posed the biggest obstacles to my appreciation of the art form. Why? Because it takes a lot more work to understand and appreciate their craftsmanship, insight and genius. However, the rewards offered by these two giants fall into the category of "acquired tastes" and good things, as I eventually learned, are well worth waiting for.
Neophytes are not the only people who feel alienated from the operatic experience. Indeed, there are still some operas which I dread attending. On certain occasions the mere length of a work can be a turn-off; at other times its musical style may strike me as having been created for the sole purpose of putting an audience to sleep. My phobia does not result from a lack of hearing familiar arias for, as Stephen Sondheim explains, "Hummable means familiar. It's simply a matter of how many times a person hears a piece of music before the music in question becomes hummable."
I can hum most of Sondheim's songs, all right. But I cannot and don't ever expect to hum any of the big moments from Berg's Lulu, Busoni's Dr. Faustus or Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Even though its score is chock full of melodious music, Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea -- which was first performed in Venice in 1642 -- usually leaves me cold (this composer's music strikes me as being beautifully baroque and dreadfully dull). With or without surtitles to help me, I have always found the dramatic action in Poppea to be frighteningly static and incomprehensible. Until recently.
SHOOTING THEM UP
Last month I attended a performance of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea by the Washington Opera which not only proved to be one of the most exciting evenings of opera/musical theatre I've seen in a long, long time, but which brought new life to this ancient work. This was hardly the kind of production in which a baroque opera is performed as a museum piece. Instead, director Christopher Alden's concept offered a no-holds barred updating of Monteverdi's opera designed to accommodate the stereotypes of 20th-century Mafioso. With wonderfully witty sets by Donald Eastman and costumes by Gabriel Berry, this controversial production had received its American premiere at the Long Beach Opera before traveling to the nation's capital. In Alden's interpretation, Nero becomes a Mafia don; Drusilla a dizzy, sex-starved secretary. Poppea, who practically oozes sensuality (this production offered a graphic depiction of the joys of phone sex) wastes no time in getting Nero's clothes off so that she can make love to him in front of the audience.
Poppea's nurse, Arnalta, is portrayed as an elderly gay confidant while Nero's henchmen are seen as a bunch of 1950s nerds. Seneca is a Mafia figure about to be bumped off; Lucan a muscular bodyguard who likes to strut around in black underwear while Nero and his towel-clad cronies grab ass in a steamroom filled with men. The Emperor's wife, Ottavia, is depicted as a pathetically ineffectual woman who is constantly being shot up on drugs by her abusive, overbearing bull dyke nurse.
The combination of the Terrace Theatre's bright acoustics, Nicholas McGegan's exquisite musical direction, a superbly musical cast of young American artists and the intimacy of a 500-seat auditorium made this production a rare treat. In fact, the next time Mr. Alden's production of Poppea is announced, I'd suggest you threaten to shove your credit card down the box office manager's throat until he sells you a ticket.
Warren Ellsworth's powerfully butch Nero, Patricia Schuman's sexy Poppea and Will Roy's compassionate Seneca were exceptionally well-drawn and sung characterizations. Ken Remo's fey Arnalta, Wendy Hill's hilariously confused Drusilla and Martha Jane Howe's sadistic nurse offered superb comic relief. As the three fates, Alina Kozinska-Plecha's Fortune, Evelyn Petros' Virtue and young Zachary Shamoo's pop/rock treatment of Amor were a hit with the audience.
However, it was Emily Golden's phenomenal -- and I do mean phenomenal -- performance as the drugged-out Ottavia which really knocked me off my feet. Singing the doomed Empress's music with rare passion while acting the pants off the role, Miss Golden gave one of those legendary demonstrations of what the new breed of young American artists can do when given half a chance. The intensity of her portrayal as well as the strength of her musicianship places this young mezzo-soprano on a level with such seasoned artists as Leonie Rysanek and Helga Dernesch (a compliment I don't give lightly). Keep an eye out for Ms. Golden -- she's the real thing.
LEAVING THEM COLD
A sense of dramatic urgency can go a long way toward making a theatrical presentation effective. Reports of Jonathan Miller's new production of Tosca at the English National Opera claim that the principals sing "as if their lives depended upon it -- which indeed they do." By contrast, if there is one crime which people in the theatre should never commit, it is to bore an audience to death.
Only after seeing Christopher Alden's interpretation of L'Incoronazione di Poppea did I begin to realize what's been missing from previous outings with this opera. And, in retrospect, I can now understand why last summer's production of Monteverdi's classic by the Santa Fe Opera -- while imbued with a great sense of respect for the composer -- was such a dismal experience for the audience.
One could hardly criticize Kenneth Montgomery's conducting or Allen Charles Klein's stylish sets and costumes. Nor could one find fault with Katherine Ciesinski's impressive Ottavia, countertenor Jeffrey Gall's Ottone, Judith Forst's Nerone or Kevin Langan's Seneca, all of which were beautifully sung. A campy portrayal of Arnalta by Anthony Laciura in drag (this man is rapidly becoming one of America's finest comprimarios) as well as some exquisite singing by Sylvia McNair as Drusilla and Carmen Balthrop as Poppea added to the evening's embarrasment of riches.
Unfortunately, as sung in Italian and staged by Bliss Hebert -- without surtitles -- the Santa Fe Opera's production of Poppea turned into an endless evening of baroque boredom. It may have looked very pretty and sounded magnificent but it felt like it would never end. Thanks to Christopher Alden and the Washington Opera, I now know that Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea does not need to be a crashing bore. And I am truly grateful for the news.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 19, 1987.