30 May 2006

Poppea in Houston

I offer the subject line to Adams or Ades or anyone who wants a good subject for a contemporary opera, possibly featuring a tie-in to the recent conviction of Ken "Bad" Lay.
I saw L'Incoronazione di Poppea twice. If this is typical of David Gockley's productions then I feel reassured about the upcoming years at SF Opera, though I have to say I'm getting really tired of the Pamela-bashing that's been going either directly or subtly around here, though perhaps I should save that up (throw it on the pile. . . . ).
This is a wonderful opera, more Shakespearean than almost all of the operas based on his work (except for Verdi's sublime Falstaff). Every character is rich and complex, from the Emperor down to his guards. This production was better than the three DVDs I watched before the trip in just about every way. The amazingly beautiful set (the only direct evocation of the Renaissance) was based on the inlaid wood studiolo from Gubbio now in the Metropolitan in New York and featured a tower to the right that opened and moved to become a staircase, a niche for visiting gods, a closet, and various other settings. The wall on the left curved around to the back and for Ottavia's entrance and Seneca's suicide beams slid out forming a staircase made up of disconnected steps, which was possibly too dramatic since apparently I wasn't the only one in the audience with a panic about heights and it was hard to concentrate until the singer had made it safely up or down (this was especially true of Seneca's suicide, when the beams were withdrawn one by one as he ascended). I hope they gave von Stade and Aceto hazard pay. The costumes were from the 1930s. I saw a review that said they were meant to evoke the fascist period in Italy. If that's true, then I'd have to say they were a failure, evoking for me Hollywood more than Mussolini: most obviously, there were no blackshirts. The emperor's retinue was either dressed formally like servants or like ordinary carbinieri. The coronation itself was distinctly Napoleonic and very reminiscent of David's painting of Napoleon crowning himself while the Pope looks on helplessly. The final duet (Pur ti miro) was sung by Graham and Burden seated on their thrones and staring straight ahead. I can't even describe why I found this so moving and so perfect. I liked Venus as a Jean Harlowe/Veronica Lake-type, surrounded by fat cherubs in sailor suits, but was a bit less convinced by Mercury as a Ralph Lauren model (though I did enjoy the little wings on his shoes; being able to notice these details is an advantage to front-row seats). They omitted the prologue, which was a shame. I like the perspective it gives to the whole work. Perhaps they felt the evening was already long enough. The cast was outstanding. There were a few moments when von Stade's voice sounded a bit worn to me, but it actually just added poignance to her portrayal of the abandoned Empress and she came through in the big moments (though she didn't quite leave scorch marks on the stage, the way Hunt-Lieberson did at SF Opera few years ago). Nathan Gunn as usual acted deeply and sang beautifully, but I did feel the staging failed in his key scene. Ottone loves Poppea but is dumped by him in favor of the Emperor Nero; the abandoned Empress orders him to kill Poppea or she will accuse him of attempting to rape her (either way he could be put to death); he is trying to convince himself that he no longer loves Poppea, but only Drusilla, who has loved him all along; he's torn among three women in a way that makes Clyde's problems in An American Tragedy look run of the mill. He feels paralyzed and trapped. The Empress's suggestion is that he borrows Drusilla's clothes and kill Poppea that way, to avoid immediate detection. He wears Drusilla's dress, but it's sleeveless and backless and though I can respect Gunn's probable reluctance to take his shirt off in every production, as worn over his white shirt it looked like one of those "Kiss the Cook" barbecue aprons they used to sell for men. A hat with a veil would have helped the illusion. There are two problem with the scene as staged: first, no one, even if she were half asleep and startled by the sudden sight of a sword right above her neck (she is awakened by Amor, who will not permit Ottone to kill the woman he still loves), could possibly think he was any woman, much less one about a foot shorter with curly blonde hair down to her shoulders. And as he runs off, since the dress is backless, he looks even less like Drusilla, rendering her subsequent arrest a bit forced. So it's unconvincing, and the second problem is that the subdued gown doesn't convey visually that his situation has unmanned him. Perhaps they were afraid it would make the scene ridiculous, but though Ottone's anguish is real (and Gunn conveys that well) the situation is slightly ridiculous. (That's one of the things I meant by the opera's Shakespearean richness.) In this production in particular it would have made an interesting contrast with the very different drag scene featuring the emperor in a scarlet dress and boa flirting with the courtier Lucano (William Burden played this scene and the whole role of the unbalanced Emperor superbly) and also with the pantomime dame role of Arnalta (Joseph Evans), Poppea's old nurse. Too bad this production wasn't recorded on DVD, as I would then have a clear favorite. I assume a recording will start circulating once NPR World of Opera broadcasts it (though not in this area); but a DVD would be better. Fans are just never satisfied, are we?

01 May 2006

Yeah, what he said

I interrupt this hiatus to refer you over to The Standing Room, where you will find a more musicianly assessment of Zimmerman than I can give: