Opera Vivente gives Monteverdi's 'Poppea' a welcome revival

CLEF NOTES

March 12, 2009|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,tim.smith@baltsun.com

To me, Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea is the ultimate prequel. Although not the first extant opera, this circa 1650 work, more than any other early example, contains within its elegant score and eventful libretto nearly all the seeds of the art form's eventual development. I'll always think of it as the origin of the species.

Stagings don't come around every day, certainly not in Baltimore, so Opera Vivente's mostly respectable production of Poppea commands attention.

On Friday night in the hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a smooth, stylish foundation for the performance was provided by the period-instrument ensemble Harmonious Blacksmith, sensitively led by Joseph Gascho.

As Nero, male soprano David Korn was most persuasive midrange, when the sound was firm and vibrant. He tended to turn strident and effortful at the top, but maintained a stylish delivery throughout. Although there were times when more confident acting would have been helpful, Korn's boyish looks played up the spoiled, immature side of Nero.

Ah Hong, as the subtly conniving Poppea, offered a gently gleaming tone, incisive phrasing and persuasive acting. As Ottone, Monica Reinagel used her burnished contralto to eloquent effect. Katherine Drago, as Nero's out-of-favor wife, Ottavia, proved effective, though I wish she had dug more deeply into the character's farewell aria. Lisa Dodson, as the Ottone-smitten Drusilla, sang charmingly.

Jed Springfield sounded a bit worn around the edges and not always on pitch, but he shaped phrases with a gravity that caught the nobility of Seneca. Karim Sulayman camped it up mightily as the nurse Arnalta (drag roles were a niche thing in baroque opera); his singing didn't always measure up, but he sure delivered the comic relief.

Ryan de Ryke sang with his usual expressive depth as Mercury, but was called on to strike silly poses in a gravely beautiful scene - one of director John Bowen's few missteps.

Those in other supporting roles ranged from proficient to passable to seriously amateurish, the latter posing a threat to Opera Vivente's reputation.

Thom Bumblauskas designed a simple set that enabled the action to move along neatly. The costumes, designed by Jennifer Tardiff, could have used a bit more style, at least for Nero and the other upper-crusties.

Bowen kept the action moving with an easy flow throughout the opera's considerable length. He also added a provocative touch in the scene between Nero and his friend Lucano - no, not the homoeroticism (other directors have read that into the libretto, too), but the sadistic violence. This Nero coldly slays Lucano moments after sharing a kiss, revealing the side of the emperor that would, in the years after the period the opera covers, make him infamous.

Remaining performances are at 7:30 tonight and Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. Tickets are $33-$55. Call 410-547-7997 or go to operavivente.org.

Choral Rachmaninoff

Although most famous for his soaring piano concertos, Rachmaninoff would be listed among the great composers if he had written nothing but his a cappella work from 1915, All-Night Vigil (also known as Vespers).

J. Ernest Green will conduct his 160-voice Annapolis Chorale in this profoundly beautiful setting of a Russian Orthodox liturgy that transcends denominational limitations. The program, presented by Live Arts Maryland, also includes piano pieces by Rachmaninoff and Schubert played by Erik Apland.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, 199 Duke of Gloucester St. Tickets are $12 and $37. Call 410-280-5640 or go to marylandhall.org.

Concerts in review

Last weekend's music-making was capped by an unusually interesting and, for Baltimore, daring program from the Shriver Hall Concert Series featuring the energizing Brentano String Quartet.

The ensemble was joined by distinguished pianist Peter Serkin in a work written last year by unrepentant atonalist Charles Wuorinen for these five performers, the Second Piano Quintet. The thorny score, a study in absorbing, brilliantly organized abstraction, received a taut and virtuosic performance.

There also was a Mendelssohn bicentennial celebration by the Concert Artists of Baltimore featuring an account of the Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang) that benefited from conductor Edward Polochick's expressive sculpting.

The chorus sounded warm and well-balanced; the vocal soloists within the ensemble were mostly impressive; and the orchestra turned in solid playing.

Music in the Great Hall presented soprano Lorriana Markovic-Prakash and pianist Adam Mahonske in an imaginative selection of songs by Tchaikovsky, Poulenc and Barber, as well as John Carter's exuberantly arranged spirituals. Some intonation issues aside, the vocalism was dynamic and involving; the accompaniment was first-rate.

For more detailed accounts of these concerts, please go to my blog, baltimoresun.com/clefnotes.

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