by Philip Kennicott
Unfortunately, raving about Wolf Trap Opera's new production of Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" at the Barns of Wolf Trap will do most readers no good. This production, which seethes with sly intrigues and cynicism, works because the directors and singers take full advantage of the theater's small size. At 350 seats, the Barns is the best place in the metropolitan area to hear opera, but it means only a limited audience will get in. Some reviews sell tickets. This one's just for posterity.
Imagine Rome as reinvented in mid-17th-century Italy, a time when the gilt is coming off the Renaissance self-confidence, when big butch statues of David are yielding to something more sickly, eccentric and mannered. This is a very dark take on imperial Rome, the Rome of Tacitus and Suetonius (and Robert Graves), the kind of place where you'd better watch where you left your drink or someone's going to slip something into it.
Very early in the history of opera, the first great practitioner of the form--Claudio Monteverdi--chose a libretto set in the Rome of Nero. "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" follows the conniving title character's rise to supplant the Empress Octavia and take her place as Nero's wife and Empress of Rome. Unlike Monteverdi's other two extant operas, set in Homeric and pre-Homeric Greece, the composer's final surviving opera has the grave formality of Senecan tragedy and the devout pragmatism of Machiavelli.
"L'Incoronazione," a late opera written more for a public than a noble audience, lives and breathes the same atmosphere as good soap opera. It feels like an excerpt from an ongoing history--which it is. Women are the central players, which doesn't mitigate the misogyny of their depiction: They are schemers and innocents, bad women on the make and good women on the wane. Characters are measured not so much by their moral worth or charisma as by their improvisational talents in a world of endless intrigue.
A surreal, almost postmodern aesthetic governs the opera. There is not one remotely likable character in Gian Francesco Busenello's libretto; Monteverdi humanizes them to a degree with his music, but only to the point of making each a tough moral bargain: Do we dare accept their frailties and forgive their machinations? With a wink at the audience, Monteverdi sugarcoats them, but they're all very bitter pills in the end.
Although set within a conventional baroque framing device--the Goddesses of Love, Fortune and Virtue contest for primacy in the course of human affairs--the ending is delightfully cynical. The schemers are finally united and Love, it seems, triumphs. Except Love is really Lust, and the triumph is short-lived; Nero will off his new spouse just as he banished his last one. Rome is a bad place for anyone arrogant enough to pretend to omniscience about his or her fate.
Even the plot proceeds more by accident than by design. Nero doesn't get what he wants because he makes it happen; he gets it because it all falls rather fortuitously into his hands. The course of history advances more by failure and misadventure than it does by human intention. No wonder, then, that when directed with finesse, "L'Incoronazione" feels more like a contemporary political thriller than a document of the mid-17th century.
The director (Gregory Keller) and designers (sets by Dipu Gupta, costumes by Bobby Pearce and lighting by Martha Mountain) have avoided the temptation that's been so strong for directors of Shakespeare this past season: updating ancient Rome to the time of Mussolini. Instead, they make references to the Italy of Caesar and the Italy of Versace but keep them in a state of suspended animation. Sumptuous red curtains, soaked in shellac, are frozen in mid billow, blowing out of doorways surrounded by imposing Corinthian columns. Poppea's jilted lover, Ottone, is dressed in the ornamental breastplate and miniskirt of a centurion; Poppea has clearly enjoyed the ministrations of a 20th-century couturier. The final pictures the designers create are a bit busy but not a distraction.
The singers are dominated by soprano Cynthia Watters in the title role. She has the vocal resources, the sense of ornamental style and the natural gift of phrasing to transform Monteverdi's short bursts of melodic declamation into a higher, almost mystical, cohesion of language and music. She has stage presence, dramatic prowess and--though one hesitates to mention it--great physical beauty.
Watters has the full package; the other singers have some or most of it. Michael Maniaci, a male soprano, worked well with Watters in the role of Nero; the voice is androgynous with a penetrating directness of tone, more like a metal flute than a wooden one. Not every line was equally attended to, not every pitch securely set; but when used with full concentration, Maniaci's voice has a chilling strength and flexibility. His characterization, underscored by costumes that were unflattering in exactly the right ways, made Nero into a recognizable historical character: profligate, petulant and childlike.
Strong solo contributions came from soprano Anna Christy, a Cupid in need of a good slapping, and bass-baritone Derrick Parker, in the role of Seneca, a philosopher who embraces death with almost comic eagerness. Baritone Keith Phares lightened his voice to give Ottone's lines a satisfying pliancy, and soprano Stacey Tappan was vocally solid and sure of pitch as Drusilla, the dumbest and happiest woman in Rome.
The ensemble, led by conductor David Fallis, had some noticeably tenuous changes of tempo but produced a vibrant and richly variegated tapestry of accompanying sounds. In keeping with the current fashion, theorbos, harps, harpsichords and a small organ were used to give contrast to the continuo line; the instrumentalists read from Clifford Bartlett's sensible edition of the textually fraught and ambiguous score.