Student singers meet challenge of lusty 'Poppea'

April 07, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

In much of Europe in the middle of the 17th century there was a libertine intellectual movement that glorified lust and ambition at the expense of reason and morality. Readers familiar with the English literature during this period can recognize powerful suggestions of this idea in such works as Andrew Marvell's "Cromwell" Ode, William Wycherly's play, "The Country Wife," and even John Milton's epic, "Paradise Lost," which, while not approving of libertinism, uses the character of Satan to paint a portrait of an avatar of the movement.

But perhaps the greatest monument to libertinism may have been created in Venice by Claudio Monteverdi in his final opera, "The Coronation of Poppea."

There isn't anything in musical drama (at least that this listener knows of) like "Poppea." Conservatives who bewail the absence of values in post-modernist art would be driven mad by it.

"Poppea" is a great, unflawed work of art that appears to be absolutely amoral.

All of the good characters in "Poppea" suffer and all the evil ones achieve transcendent happiness. If values are celebrated in "Poppea," they are the joys of satisfying the urges to fornicate and murder. There's nothing in the history of music quite like the final duet, in which Nero and Poppea, with languid chromaticism and continually overlapping lines, suggest the triumph of eroticism in manner so explicit that it makes the love music in Wagner's "Tristan" seem almost restrained.

All of this has been realized memorably in a Peabody Opera Theatre production at the Walters Art Gallery, which has been staged brilliantly by Roger Brunyate, played persuasively by conductor Kenneth Slowik and a bunch of young crackerjack instrumental authenticists and several fine young student singers.

Brunyate clearly understands the intellectual issues of the opera; he has been successful in transmitting that understanding to his student-singers. He has also designed this production with a glamorous 17th-century look that has been enhanced by the fine costumes of John Lehmeyer and the subtle lighting of Douglas Nelson.

The performance started a little slowly. It seemed the singers had trouble initially in adjusting themselves to the necessity of enunciating with clarity a baroque opera's libretto -- "Poppea" was sung in English translation -- and to the constricted space of the small stage.

But by the second half, the performance was flying. There were so many outstanding performances there isn't space to mention them all. A short list of some of the most memorable might include: the vocally assured Nero of Monica Reinagel; the splendidly indecent Poppea of Frances Garcia; the almost equally sexy Fortune of Jennifer Davison; the insightful and dramatically entrancing Page of David Bell; and the often hilarious Arnalta of Daniel Cassantio, who played this campy "skirt" role for all it was worth and yet was able to make his character's second act lullaby ineffably tender.

The final performance of "Poppea" takes place tonight at 8:15 in the Walters Art Gallery.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.