Haymarket Opera delivers a worthy performance of Monteverdi’s “Poppea”

Sat Sep 24, 2022 at 2:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Erica Schuller (left) as Poppea and Lindsay Metzger as Nerone in Haymarket Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Haymarket Opera is marking another milestone this weekend with its first excursion into Claudio Monteverdi—a reverse, 4-1/2-twist somersault into the deep end of the pool with the composer’s sprawling L’incoronazione di Poppea.

There is a Shakespearean breadth and Dickensian social penetration to The Coronation of Poppea that seems to capture all the strata of a brutal and cynical society—from the skeptical guards mocking the philandering emperor and servants plotting a reversal of their fortunes to the noble philosopher Seneca, and the epic romance of the calculating Poppea and rapacious Nerone.

If character and dramatic motivation are often all over the map, with its epic scope and nearly two-dozen characters, it is the very contradictions, cross-impulses and disjunctions in Poppea that seem to capture the essence of love, lust and political ambition in all their tangled and conflicted messiness.

Haymarket Opera deserves kudos for tackling this vast three-hour work and delivered a largely impressive performance Friday night at DePaul University’s Jarvis Opera Hall with a cast of company regulars taking all the major roles.

Yet while there were admirable moments, Haymarket’s performance didn’t efface memories of John Eliot Gardiner’s magisterial Poppea at the Harris Theater in 2017.

There were two primary issues. First, while the Haymarket company boasts a roster of gifted artists, the lead roles of Poppea and Nerone call for more than game competency. Part of the problem was that Haymarket’s performance lacked the kind of star power and vocal gleam required to seize the stage in these two key roles. After waiting three hours for a heart-stopping experience with the final duet “Pur ti miro,” just kind of nice singing doesn’t cut it.

Haymarket would have done better to wait until it could book some major Baroque singers for these roles—as they did with Bejun Mehta in last season’s successful streamed performance of Handel’s Orlando.

The other problem was that the performance lacked a firm yet subtle guiding hand to chart and balance this huge work while giving breadth and power to the individual arias. For long sections Friday night, especially in Act 1,  the performance just chugged along without much fire or urgency—failing to avoid the pitfall of the opera feeling like acres and acres of recitative.

Lindsay Metzger was a worthy Nerone, singing with consistent polish, a plush mezzo tone and technical ease. Yet while she hit all the requisite marks, she failed to convey the emperor’s dangerous nature and unhinged personality—bolstering the view that a male countertenor usually works better in this role theatrically than a female mezzo.

Erica Schuller possesses the charismatic stage presence and flexible soprano for the scheming Poppea who plots and murders her way to the throne, and she richly conveyed the character’s seductive and manipulative qualities. Vocally Schuller was less consistent Friday night, sporadically veering off pitch in the first two acts.

As Ottavia, Nerone’s put-aside queen, Kimberly McCord was an aptly regal and imperious presence. The soprano sang with daunting power yet brought affecting emotion to Ottavia’s final aria lamenting her banishment from Rome.  

Michael Skarke was Ottone in Haymarket Opera’s Poppea. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Michael Skarke was a superb Ottone, singing with a light yet refined countertenor and somehow making this weak, lovelorn character credible and appealing.

David Govertsen brought his usual excellence to the role of Seneca. As the doomed Stoic philosopher, the company’s resident bass-baritone sang with dark, oak-like richness of tone and brought moral gravitas to the most laudable character in the opera.

Male soprano Elijah McCormack contributed the most exuberant performance of the evening as Amore (Cupid) and Valletto, singing, acting and dancing with a vitality that raised the entire show a notch every time he was onstage.

Kristin Knutson was a spirited Drusilla, deftly doubling as Fortuna in the metaphoric prologue. Countertenor Justin Berkowitz proved a lively if fitfully campy presence in the gender-bending roles of Arnalta and Nutrice, yet provided a sensitive rendering of the former’s lullaby to the sleeping Poppea.

Showing game versatility in triple supporting roles each were Sofia Troncoso, Ryan Townsend Strand, Jianghai Ho, and the huge-voiced baritone Dorian McCall. General director and creative producer Chase Hopkins made a cameo appearance as Mercurio.

Wendy Waszut-Barrett’s painted backdrop was evocative enough but proved a monotonous fixed visual over the three-hour-plus evening, unaided by Brian Schneider’s similarly unvaried high-beam lighting. Stephanie Cluggish’s costumes were more successful, providing the requisite color and period elegance.

Conductor Craig Trompeter kept the score on track capably but too many scenes settled into a kind of bland efficiency. While the five-member continuo lacked the varied instrumental colors of a larger Baroque ensemble, their assured playing provided the most consistent element of the evening—especially the hard-working Jason Moy (harpsichord and organ) and Brandon Acker (theorbo and guitar). 

L’incoronazione di Poppea will be repeated 7:30 p.m Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. haymarketopera.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment