OPERA NEWS - L’Incoronazione di Poppea
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In Review > North America

L’Incoronazione di Poppea

Cincinnati Opera

In Review Cincinnati Poppea hdl 918
Anthony Roth Costanzo and Sarah Shafer in Cincinnati’s Poppea
© Philip Groshong

CINCINNATI OPERA continued its ninety-eighth season with a rare venture into early opera—an intimate production of Monteverdi’s final opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, staged by Zack Winokur at the nearby School for Creative and Performing Arts. Winokur, conductor Gary Thor Wedow and dramaturge Cori Ellison created a concise performing edition, advertised as running two and a half hours, including intermission. Forward-moving but never rushed, this version worked extremely well. Cincinnati’s Poppea was an excellent introduction for newcomers to the opera, and to Monteverdi’s style, yet still satisfying to those operagoers who are familiar with the composer and his works. The entire evening was a delight, a model for opera companies wishing to explore older music.

The cast was ideal, with most of the singers making their Cincinnati Opera debuts. The one established star, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, was a powerful Nerone, his voice easily filling the theater. He phrased all of his music beautifully, and the sound was generally quite handsome, although it occasionally turned harsh at the top of the range. A fine actor, Costanzo was convincing as both tyrant and lover. Sarah Shafer was an attractive Poppea, her appeal to both Nerone and Ottone quite understandable. Some of Poppea’s music lay a bit low for Shafer to project strongly, but she never pushed for sound, and the results were always lovely, particularly in the final duet.

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was an affecting Ottone, his soft-grained voice a good foil to Costanzo’s brighter timbre. Like his fellow cast members, Cohen projected Monteverdi’s long lines sensitively, and the scene in which he and Drusilla try to protect each other from Nerone’s wrath was moving. As Drusilla, Melissa Harvey was appropriately bubbly most of the time, singing her music fleetly. Well known in the local early-music scene, Harvey has sung small roles in contemporary music with the company. 

Sarah Mesko was wonderful as the discarded empress Ottavia. Her mezzo is rich and powerful, and her two arias were among the high points of the evening. Another high point was the Seneca of resonant bass Alex Rosen, whose death ended Act I in this version of the opera. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle Kamarei sang Arnalta, making her character’s fierce devotion to Poppea readily apparent. 

Three singers were cast in multiple roles. Tenor Andrew Owens was Lucano, as well as a soldier and a friend of Seneca. Like all the singers, he was fluent in coloratura, including a good trill. Christian Pursell, who has sung previously with the company, took on five brief roles, showing off his well–schooled, attractive bass-baritone in all of them. Countertenor Daniel Moody, who sang Nerone in the final performance of the run, appeared in two smaller parts on opening night. His voice is powerful, with a strong high range.  

The heart of the orchestra was the Catacoustic Consort, a Cincinnati-based early-music ensemble, with artistic director Annalisa Pappano playing viola da gamba and lirone in the pit. The group was supplemented by a few members of the Cincinnati Symphony. Wedow’s conducting was flexible, allowing the music time to expand or moving it forward with the drama. The evident rapport between the continuo group and singers felt improvisatory. 

Adam Charlap Hyman’s set was simple and effective—three architectural pieces that the cast moved into different configurations to indicate changes of locale. The arches and stairs suggested antiquity, but a pair of quite modern chairs playfully disrupted that feeling. Costume designer Amanda McGee’s tunics and togas were attractive, and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting made effective use of shadows. 

Winokur’s direction was also effective, though two staging choices were debatable. The pushing and shoving between Nerone and Seneca in their first scene together appeared exaggerated. More important, having Nerone stab Poppea at the end of their duet seemed a serious miscalculation. True, some ancient historians blame Nerone for Poppea’s death, but the action is totally out of keeping with the music at this point in the opera. But such quibbles are minor; the enthusiastic response to this production suggested that Cincinnati Opera may well be building an audience for early opera.  — Joe Law

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