"The Coronation of Poppea" was a shocker when it first hit the stage in 1642. It was the first opera in history to deal with historic figures (Nero and his court) rather than the gods and heroes of Greek mythology. It told a sordid story of lust and unbridled power--Poppea, the emperor's mistress, scheming her way to the throne over the dead bodies of those who oppose her. Even though it brought such figures as Fortune, Virtue and Love actively into the plot, it presented the decadent doings of Nero and his minions in brutally realistic terms.
It's harder to shock audiences today than it was in the 1600s, but "Poppea" managed to do it once again in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's calculatedly anachronistic production, which aired on PBS last year. Now, for six performances through May 21, Washington's Opera Southwest has a production that might shock even Ponnelle.
Director Muriel Von Villas, in a program note for this production, describes "Poppea" as "The Greatest Soap Opera in History," and that's the way it's being played at the Westminster United Presbyterian Church. Like it or not, it is a striking concept, carefully worked out, and it gives added dimensions to a work that can easily become a sort of pageant with beautiful music. The effect is sometimes like the self-conscious irony used by Bertolt Brecht for "distancing" the audience, and it brings out elements implicit in Claudio Monteverdi's work that can easily be buried under baroque quaintness.
This "Poppea" is sung in a lucid new translation by Octavio Roca that gains in clarity and brutal directness what it loses in stately Renaissance grandeur and Italian liquidity. Only one line is perfectly translated: "No, no, Drusilla, no" (from the Italian, "No, no, Drusilla, no"), but many others come close to this standard and, as one fan remarked during intermission on opening night, "It's nice to know exactly what's going on." The clarity of singing in this production (in the lower voices from the beginning, the higher voices after a bit of warm-up) makes the use of a translation particularly worthwhile.
The staging is in modern costume, with Nero wearing a tuxedo, red bow tie and gold laurel wreath, Fortune garbed like the hostess in a cocktail lounge, Nero's soldiers in Italian Army uniform and dear little Drusilla dressed as the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi: pink skirt and hair ribbon, white blouse, bobby socks and saddle oxfords. Following Ponnelle's lead, Arnalta, Poppea's nurse, is a tenor in drag, but the costume prize goes to the God of Love, decked out in white jogging shorts decorated with a red heart, red-and-white windbreaker, and arrows with heart-shaped red feathers. The philosopher Seneca, the only wholly good major character in the opera, is costumed as a Jesuit.
As in most productions, the opera has been trimmed to a reasonable length. It is done with a knowing hand, making a well-defined plot line but keeping some of the byplay of the gods (Virtue vanquished by an alliance between Love and Fortune) that puts the story in a cosmic context. Conductor Edward Roberts has trimmed the orchestra to 10 pieces--harpsichord, five winds and string quartet, a combination that words well in the church's acoustics and preserves the essential Monteverdi sound.
The voices are generally good, with outstanding work by Vladimir Ekzarkhov as Seneca, William Jones as Love and Joe Myering as Nero--a fine tenor giving a memorable, sometimes comic portrayal of self-indulgence pushed to the brink of madness. Catherine May is a seductively evil Poppea, Valeria Eichelberger a stately, rich-voiced Octavia and Sarah Barrett a charming Drusilla.