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Decadent Opera's Majestic Monteverdi

CONCERTL'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA By Claudio Monteverdi Harvard Early Music Society November 5-7, 12-14 Agassiz Theater


A slip of pale magenta light shone out between red velvet curtains. It and the musical prelude could have gone on for three hours, and I would not have missed the opera. Three violins and a phat viola fiddled while Nero was ostensibly still in the dressing room. They made up the feisty, devilish flank of the Early Music Society Orchestra, balanced by a quietly attentive harp and two awfully long lutes (allegedly a "chitarrone" and a "theorbo") on the right, with two harpsichords rammed together in the middle like poorly parked flagships.

L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) itself, however, pulled its own attention-grabbing weight from the first scene. Monteverdi would have been proud, especially if he had seen the costuming. Perhaps it was the "irony" of looking at the scantily costumed goddess Virtue (Katie Szal '99), or the cute power behind choir boy Jonathan "Yoni" Heilman's role as Amor that so easily distracted me from the layout of the orchestra pit. More probably it was the beautiful magenta flush of the entire stage, revealed at last as the prelude finished.

The first scene is an argument between Virtue and Fortune (Cathy Ellis). Amor intervenes and claims he can show them a superior power. The ensuing action hinges on Nero, played by Christian Quilici '01. Nero seduces Poppea (Tonia D'Amelio '00), sending his wife Octavia (a vitally austere Eleanor Hubbard '01) and Poppea's ex-boyfriend Otto (Carolann Buff) on a plot to murder Poppea. The outcome, the defiant coronation of Poppea and the happy banishment of Otto and his new girl (Drusilla, ably sung by Genithia Hogges `01), is supposed to be a testament to the power of love as represented by choir boy Amor, but it never really loses the saucy-sin feel that Quilici and D'Amelia develop in the first act. Furthermore, Drusilla and Otto's relationship blooms very suddenly and seems rather flat, although this has more to do with the libretto than with acting.

While Poppea's libretto certainly sounds better than it reads as a plot, this production's singing was so fluent that I could follow the plot almost continuously. Also, I never really noticed that the actors were singing. The color and expression of various voices were at the forefront of the production, but none of the singing seemed staged. The four leads were particularly strong. Quilichi and D'Amelio occasionally swung a flat, everyday-speech exclamation into their performances, and Buff, in her transsexual role as Otto, single-handedly built the tension of the play, bellowing out against Poppea's betrayal.

But as with any quasi-classical performance, it was the spicy touch that gave Poppea class. Quilichi, buttoning his fly as the lights went up on Poppea's bedroom, was a languorous, star-dusty Nero who let his fingers into mouths, let other fingers under his own covers, and let his own fingers snap, comfortably touchy, at any cynic (Seneca, played in dyed gray hair by John Driscoll '99) who would complain. After all the history of this Poppea is finished, it leaves a taste not of triumphant love, but of triumphant decadence.

Decadence in magenta plus strong singing makes good opera. At three hours, L'Incoronazione di Poppea is a lazy, titillating show with a beautiful string orchestra. The Aggasiz stage is great all-around, and Poppea is fun to watch.

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