Timeless themes

Critic's choice: Classical music

July 16, 2000|By Tim Smith

Call it "Sex, Lies and Recitative." It's Claudio Monteverdi's 1642 opera, "The Coronation of Poppea," one of the greatest works in the repertoire. Although largely ignored in the 18th and 19th centuries, "Poppea" came into its own in the 20th, appreciated as much for the sublime quality of its music as for the telling psychological portraits that music helps to create.

The opera's subject matter is not likely ever to become dated. A ruler who is unfaithful to his wife; a cunning woman who will stop at nothing to advance her social and economic fortune; a political rival with an awfully holier-than-thou attitude; assorted power struggles and sexual jealousies. It could just as easily be about Washington or Hollywood as ancient Rome. Never mind that a few goddesses pop up briefly in the opera; this is earthy stuff.

Monteverdi and his librettist, Giovanni Francesco Busenello, used a story of Emperor Nero's court to create a kind of mirror that reflected many concerns of Venetians in the heady days of the Renaissance. It was easy for the first audiences, as it is for us, to see past the historical trappings of the plot, which involves Nero's lust for Poppea and her determination to sit on the throne by his side. Issues of public and personal responsibility, moral conviction, loyalty -- they're all here amid the exquisite melodic curves of the score.

The Wolf Trap Opera Company, which has already livened up the summer season with a wild and wacky production of a Rossini comedy, turns this week to Monteverdi's masterpiece. The cast, made up of exceptionally promising young artists chosen by national audition, will be conducted by David Fallis. Gregory Keller will direct.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and July 25, 2 p.m. July 23, in the intimate Bans of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. Tickets are $48. Call 703-218-6500 or order online: www.wolftrap.org. For more information, call 703-255-1860.

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