Opera Atelier’s THE CORONATION OF POPPEA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, April 25, 2009, Elgin Wintergarden Theatre, Toronto

Every scene in this outstanding production is organized (by Gerard Gauci, Dora Rust D’Eye and Kevin Fraser) to look like a painting whose highly mannered style satisfies the eye without sacrificing artistic purpose. That purpose is to stage a daring opera in which Monteverdi (and others) join exquisite music to Busenello’s brilliant libretto honouring the amorous union of two repellent characters from Roman history: Nero, sung by the incomparable male soprano, Michael Maniaci, and Nero’s second Empress, Poppea, beautifully portrayed by Peggy Kriha Dye. What is daring about this opera is that the music (by Tafelmusik) suspends our disgust at the devastating actions of the pair of moral monsters described by the text and lets us feel the power of the attraction—call it love (in some sense, divine love)— between them.

The prologue has Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg’s dancers behind a screen in filmy attire gracefully circling a dimly lit stage in total silence, suggesting that they are supernatural beings, attendants on the gods of Virtue, Fortune and Love (Cupid) who vie for supremacy over human affairs. Cupid claims the story of Nero and Poppea will verify that she rules. Through this device, we are ushered into the mind of 17th century Venetians who were enjoying a cultural furlough from the Church by contemplating models of conduct from classical antiquity. We in turn, are invited into a break from any kind of theatrical realism, into a world that is seemingly quaint, with it’s gods, emperors, lutes,recorders and other continuo instruments, yet totally familiar at least from television dramas set in the haunts of the grossly overprivileged in Vegas, Miami, and L.A.

Michael Maniaci’s Nero, under the direction of Marshall Pynkoski, is regal in his postures and flowing gestures,  sometimes melting down under the power of sexuality into infantile attitudes of rage and need (brought to the limits of propriety where he celebrates with Lucan the news of Seneca’s death). Maniaci’s voice is unforgettable: imperious, penetrating, tender. His duets with Poppea are a high point of the opera. Peggy Kriha Dye, her voice rich and flexible, goes easily through the full range of Poppea’s emotions: convincingly fickle with Ottone, her-lover-being-discarded, seductive and submissive with Nero, manipulative in bringing about the death of the philosopher Seneca. Joao Fernandes as Seneca has some of the best lines, and the sound of his basso rivals the authority of Maniaci’s soprano.

Olivier Laquerre sings and acts and postures impeccably as Ottone who maintains his dignity in desperation even as he switches his love from Poppea to Drusilla who loves him, and lends him her dress for a failed attempt to murder Poppea. Longtime favourite soprano, Carla Huhtanen, brings a bright, sharp clarity and liveliness to her roles as Fortune and Drusilla. Kimberly Barber as Ottavia  brings home the pathos of Nero’s discarded Empress and also shows the power of her clutches to Ottone, forcing him to attempt the murder of her rival. Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre, in the role of Ottavia’s nurse, earned the distinction of bringing the audience right into her lap and making us giggle.

The tradition of Opera Atelier under the particular direction of Marshall Pynkoski and his talented partners twice a year gives us entertainment like no other. The closing tableau, strikingly lit by Kevin Fraser, shows Cupid falling asleep in the lap of his/her mother Venus, who has forgiven his/her excesses in causing the action of the play. The tableau also hints at Poppea’s historical  fall from her imperial seat when Nero kicks her to death while she is pregnant with his child, and then causes her to be deified. Around this energy circle the glorious harmonies of the full Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chorus till the darkness descends.

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