Passion of politics' past resonates in the now

Themes fit right in with current events

Opera Review

May 08, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Ahead of government who cheats on his wife, abandons his longtime adviser, manipulates public opinion and manages to escape every scandal without a scratch. Sounds familiar. Sounds like opera, too.

Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, arguably the first extant operatic masterpiece (dating from the 1640s), is nothing if not eternally topical. Originally about passion, politics and prurience in Nero's Rome, the work has something to say about the human condition at virtually any period, a point being hammered home by Maryland Opera Studio's production of Poppea, which wraps up tonight in the intimate and elegant Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Center.

The studio, part of the University of Maryland's School of Music, has come up with a smart, sleek staging that places the action in a contemporary "Dictatorial Imperial Democracy."

Characters are costumed (by Helen Huang) in today's garb, except for a maid in a Victorian outfit (Victorian drag, to be precise). Nero's guards suggest Secret Service men in their suits and ear-pieces; the gods of Fortune, Virtue and Love look like Ruxton ladies attending a Junior League do (they are first seen playing a celestial game of croquet).

In case anyone misses the point about Poppea's timelessness, the rear projections that neatly fill out Daniel Conway's set include glimpses of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other iconic sites.

It's all just a little heavy-handed, including the ending - projected titles provide ironic details about the messy future of Rome under Nero as he and Poppea sing their indelible love duet. Having updated the action, why the sudden reminder of historical fact and context?

Still, Leon Major's assured, high-momentum direction makes for effective theater. And his student cast clicks; major and minor roles are all deftly drawn and tightly integrated into the directorial concept.

On Monday night, the young singers paid attention to words (the opera is sung in an occasionally awkward English translation) and negotiated Monteverdi's phrases with style. His trademark single-note repetitions at the end of a line were often given extra color and telling emphasis (sometimes turned into a laugh).

Technically, the vocalists were a mixed lot. A few sounded ready for prime time; others sounded in the early stages of development, with trouble maintaining pitch or supporting highest and lowest notes.

But, just as there was a common ground dramatically, the cast summoned a certain musical cohesiveness that held the performance together.

As Nero, Nikolas Spanos revealed an intriguing countertenor voice. It achieved the bright gleam of a soprano at times, though it was apt to turn a little squeaky as it ascended. What gave his portrayal particular interest was the colorful articulation of melodic flourishes; his singing had an extra spark of spontaneity about it. (Spanos also seemed to have a good time with the earthier aspects of the assignment; in this production, Nero is a hormonal tornado.)

Kate Vetter Caine, as Poppea, stood out for her steady soprano, consistently animated phrasing and sensual acting. David Fry's Seneca had a stately presence, if not quite enough vocal heft to go with it. Jennifer Caruana, as the much-wronged Octavia, sang strongly but missed the potential pathos in her farewell scene.

Among the many other roles, Keith Hudspeth revealed delightful flair as Valletto. Notably expressive support, vocal and theatrical, also came from Colin James and Paul Richardson in dual assignments.

Conductor Kenneth Slowik's flowing tempos and affinity for the subtle side of Monteverdi's idiom gave the performance a gentle air of authority, as did the accomplished and sensitive orchestra of period instruments.

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