OTSL brings brilliant fresh life to “Poppea,” while “Rigoletto” is hobbled by inept direction

Wed Jun 19, 2019 at 12:00 pm

By John von Rhein

Emily Fons and Brenton Ryan star in Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” at the Opera Theater of St. Louis. Photo: Eric Woolsey

ST. LOUIS – In ancient Rome, just as in today’s Washington D.C., dissenting opinions on matters of state can easily provoke the wrath of the emperor, often leading to  dire consequences. 

At least that is the situation in which the characters in Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 masterpiece The Coronation of Poppea find themselves, as each pursues his or her amoral agenda in British director Tim Albery’s terrific modern-dress production, which the Opera Theater of St. Louis is presenting as part of its 44th summer festival season.

There are no admirable figures in this loosely interpreted slice of real-life Roman history, its plot hinging on the corrupt emperor Nero’s (or Nerone, as he’s called in Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s Italian libretto) scheme to replace the empress, Ottavia, with his young mistress, Poppea. The titular courtesan is fully engaged in a power grab of her own, using sex as her pathway to the imperial throne. None of the other principal figures are precisely who they pretend to be, with the exception of the emperor’s chief advisor, Seneca, here done up as a tweedy professorial type who is ordered to commit suicide for counseling Nero not to abandon Ottavia.

Before the villains have their way and Poppea’s destiny is fulfilled, the body count mounts alarmingly, and the intimate stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center is awash in gallons of fake blood, which is neatly stored in refrigerated containers. But here’s the rub: Nefarious deeds are set to some of the composer’s most ravishing music, most notably the exquisite final love duet for Poppea and Nerone. (Some scholars believe that music was composed not by Monteverdi, but, rather someone working under his supervision.)

Working from the smart performing edition Albery created with conductor Laurence Cummings for England’s Opera North, the director orchestrates the action around a long moveable table, suitable for royal banquets as well as carnal quickies. Designer Hannah Clark’s 1960s-style set and costumes speak to the excesses of their era as much as to those of Nerone’s Rome. Bemusedly observing the nasty intrigues from the sidelines are the goddesses Fortune, Virtue and Love, the latter sporting a backwards baseball cap and strap-on Cupid’s wings.

A chamber ensemble consisting of pairs of violins and theorbos, lirone, viola da gamba, harp and harpsichords is divided across the stage, with music director Nicholas Kok presiding stylishly at one of the keyboards. The crisp instrumental textures frame consistently fine singing. With cuts, the show clocks in at just under three hours and doesn’t feel a minute too long.

Heading a virtually flawless cast are mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, vocally and physically alluring as the scheming minx Poppea; and the commanding tenor Brenton Ryan as Nerone, whose firm, clear vocalism shines like a beacon even while the emperor and his consort-to-be are pawing each other on that ever-present table. Seldom is self-interested corruption on the operatic stage such delicious fun to behold.

Company veterans David Pittsinger (bass-baritone) as the doomed counsellor Seneca and Patricia Schuman as Poppea’s devoted nurse Arnalta deliver deeply considered performances. Having the nurse – a role traditionally assigned to a male singer in drag – sung by a soprano banishes any trace of campiness and preserves the character’s dignity.

Mezzo Sarah Mesko’s affecting Ottavia, countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell’s unfailingly musical Ottone and Devon Guthrie’s sweetly appealing Drusilla uphold their end of things gamely, as do Sydney Baedke, Jennifer Aylmer and Michaela Wolz as the decidedly mortal trio of goddesses.

Roland Wood and friend in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at Opera Theater of St. Louis. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Nearly every recent St. Louis opera season has suffered one misfire out of the four shows, and the company’s new production of Rigoletto falls into that category.

Updating the time and setting from Renaissance Italy to 19th century Paris is the least bothersome of the unfortunate choices with which stage director Bruno Ravella gums up Verdi’s tuneful melodrama. The worst is to outfit Rigoletto – an entertainer at the theater where the rich playboy Duke hangs out with his pals – with a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy, a gimmick with no discernible dramatic purpose.

Each act is cloaked in gloomy, doomy darkness, the action so claustrophobically enclosed that poor Gilda, Rigoletto’s virginal daughter, eavesdrops within inches of the randy Duke and the murderous co-conspirators who give her the sack in the penultimate scene.

Worse, there are scant traces of father-daughter affection in the vocally sturdy performances of Roland Wood in the title role and So Young Park as Gilda. The black-toned baritone makes the most of Rigoletto’s bitter rant over the courtiers’ abduction of his daughter, and Park precisely etches the fioriture of her “Caro nome” showpiece, each delicate decoration suggesting the girl’s awakening to womanhood.

Of the rest, the tight-voiced tenor Joshua Wheeker’s Duke is unprepossessing as both singer and actor, while Christian Zaremba as the hitman Sparafucile and Lindsay Ammann as his sister, Maddalena, are unexceptional. Roberto Kalb, the company’s resident conductor and director of music, propels the music with more headlong urgency than Italianate elegance.

The 2020 Opera Theater of St. Louis festival season will comprise Bizet’s Carmen, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, the belated company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (directed by soprano Patricia Racette), and the world premiere of composer Tobias Picker and librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman’s Awakenings. Dates are May 23-June 28, 2020.

The Coronation of Poppea runs through June 28, and  Rigoletto through June 30 at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. opera-stl-org; 314-961-0644.

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