Corbett Auditorium, School for the Creative and Performing Arts
21 June 2018

Opera with a prologue and three acts with music by Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello

The Catacoustic Consort, conducted by Gary Thor Wedow

Stage Director: Zack Winokur
Set Designer: Adam Charlap Hyman
Costume Designer: Amanda McGee
Lighting Director: Thomas C. Hase
Wigs and Makeup: James Geier
Catacoustic Consort Artistic Director: Annalisa Pappano
Dramaturg and Supertitles Author: Cori Ellison
Production stage manager: Liam Roche

Poppea: Sarah Shafer
Nerone: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Ottavia: Sarah Mesko
Ottone: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Drusilla: Melissa Harvey
Seneca: Alex Rosen
Arnalta: Rebecca Ringle Kamarei
Lucano/First Soldier/Friend of Seneca: Andrew Owens
Liberto/Second Soldier/Friend of Seneca/Lictor/Tribune: Christian Pursell
Valet/Friend of Seneca: Daniel Moody

I’ve always considered my remarks about the live opera performances I attend to be “thoughts from a member of the audience” rather than an actual review. I can have some pretty strong opinions about certain things (no kidding, huh?), and they can certainly affect my perception of what I’m hearing or seeing. Given my aversion to countertenors, I was hoping that the Cincinnati Opera’s production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea would include a tenor Nerone – though I also knew the odds were against it. And, in fact, the role was sung by a countertenor: Anthony Roth Costanzo, who has the reputation of being among the world’s best in this Fach. To be fair to him, and to his countertenor colleagues Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Ottone) and Daniel Moody (Valet/Friend of Seneca), I will defer to the audience’s assessment. And that was very positive, to judge from the applause and cheers these gentlemen received at the curtain call. When the entire cast took their bows, a number of people were even standing (and it wasn’t because they wanted to make a mad dash to the exits to beat the traffic!).

All three of the leading ladies were top-notch. Sarah Shafer, who made her Met debut this season as Azema in Semiramide and has sung Mozart’s Zerlina and Pamina with the San Francisco Opera, assumed the role of Poppea when Talise Trevigne had to cancel last month. She has a beautiful, clear lyric soprano and produced effortless coloratura. This Poppea was very confident and sure of herself, even aggressively so in the first scene with Arnalta. Melissa Harvey (Drusilla) has a lighter-weight but equally lovely soprano, and likewise was up to all of the technical demands of her part. With her warm mezzo, Sarah Mesko made a regal, dignified Ottavia – who nonetheless isn’t above ordering the murder of her rival. I was glad that the CO chose to cast Poppea’s nurse Arnalta with a mezzo – the fine Rebecca Ringle Kamarei – instead of a tenor in drag. Assigning this part, or that of the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel, to a man instead of a woman has always struck me as trying too hard to be funny.

The only other major male figure in this opera, the philosopher and Nerone’s tutor Seneca, was sung by Alex Rosen. What a fabulous, rich basso cantante he has! Listening to him was an unalloyed pleasure. Tenor Andrew Owens and bass-baritone Christian Pursell displayed very attractive voices in the multiple minor characters which they portrayed. Gary Thor Wedow led a sprightly reading of Monteverdi’s score by the Cincinnati historic performance specialist ensemble Catacoustic Consort. (I couldn’t find anything online as to whether or not the orchestra’s Artistic Director, Annalisa Pappano, is related to Sir Tony in any way.) As the cast listing indicates, there were some cuts made to the score. The entire prologue with the allegorical figures of La Fortuna, La Virtù, and Amor, was scrapped, and the character of Ottavia’s nurse dropped, so that we didn’t get to see Arnalta rubbing that lady’s nose in it after Poppea has supplanted Ottavia. Or the marvelous scene when the nurse suggests that Ottavia take a lover of her own to compensate for Nerone’s philandering.

Yesterday marked the first performance of this work in the Cincinnati Opera’s history – the 100th season is coming up next year, though I suspect the centennial will be observed in 2020. The new production is the CO’s own. Adam Charlap Hyman’s sets consisted of three large structures with Roman arches fronting an arcade, and these pieces could be rotated to form a variety of configurations. The central structure also featured a stairway along one side, which could be visible or hidden, depending upon the way in which the structures were positioned. The narrow passageways formed by the arcades occasionally offered places for some of the characters to lurk in the shadows. Amanda McGee’s costumes evoked first century A.D. Rome, with Poppea, Nerone, Ottavia, Seneca, and some of their friends/servants garbed in white and red. Ottone and Drusilla wore shades of pale green, while Arnalta’s gown was a pale rose or mauve.

Director Zack Winokur kept things moving – initially, I thought there might have been a bit too much dashing around onstage – and paid attention to the characters’ interactions. A large stone tub (or at least what looked like stone) was brought out for Seneca’s suicide ordered by Nerone, and the philosopher’s friends helped him disrobe. But only down to boxer shorts; Cincinnati has come a long way since the beginning of this century, but onstage nudity might be pushing things a little far yet. And the singer himself may not have been comfortable with the idea. Mr. Winokur had a real surprise waiting for us at the end of the opera, and not necessarily a good one. The last notes of “Pur ti miro” had just been sung when Nerone tore the crown of golden oak leaves from Poppea’s head and killed her, prompting an audible gasp from the audience. The gentleman seated next to me gave me a puzzled looked and said, “What was that about?” My answer was along the lines of “No idea.” While for a long time, it was believed that Poppaea was kicked to death by Nero three years after he made her Empress, modern historians tend to discount this and believe she died of a miscarriage instead. In any case, this action coming on the heels of that beautiful duet was really jarring, and the purpose of it completely escapes me.