This year’s spring production by the UCSB Opera Theatre stands at the far end of the operatic timeline. The Coronation of Poppea (1643), Claudio Monteverdi’s final work, not only heralds from the early days of opera; it also represents the key innovation of introducing historical, rather than mythological, themes. It tells of the rise of Poppea, mistress to Roman emperor Nero, with all kinds of backlash and betrayal along the way, including the death of the royal advisor Seneca and the dethroning and exile of Octavia, the present empress.
This production was no contemporary adaptation. The set’s columns and stone walls evoked old Rome, as did the costume togas and gowns. The presence of lute and harpsichord in the small orchestra directed by Temmo Korisheli gave a medieval rhythm to the upbeat sections and an intimate power to the solemn recitatives. The large cast of able singers and actors featured Bryan Lane as the formidable Nero and Helena von Rueden as the conniving seductress Poppea. Mark Covey is a fine baritone, and he made an excellent characterization of the conflicted and cuckolded Ottone. Sloane Artis-Thomas as Drusilla shone the light of her bubbly innocence and virtue into a dark court deprived of both. Bass Keith Colclough rattled the air with Stoical authority as the aged Seneca. The antics of Angky Budiardjono as the page boy Valetto brought comic relief from the heavier drama. Directors Simon Williams and Paul Sahuc and producer Benjamin Brecher head the long list of people to thank for this monumental undertaking. Lest one mistakenly think this resurrection of Monteverdi a mere ritual deference to the operatic canon, think again. A large audience of both early-opera aficionados and newcomers not only returned in full-force from intermission (yes, that is saying something) but also remained viscerally engaged throughout.
Although Monteverdi’s masterpiece ventures into history, it is still underwritten by mythology. The Prologue is a quarrel between the female divinities — Amor/Love (Mary Rose Go), Fortuna/Fate (Erica Nagashima), and Virtù/Virtue (Christina Esser) — over who exercises supreme influence in human affairs. People easily turn their backs on Virtù when tempted by Fortuna’s gifts of wealth and power; however, Amor’s blinding spell trumps all. The Prologue ends with the other two divinities kneeling unwillingly to Amor. Everything that follows pertains to the mortal world, but one or more of the goddesses remain visible throughout. Amor conducts the scene changes, Prospero-like, with waving arms. Fortuna is the faithful servant in all shifts of fate, as when she is made to slice Seneca’s wrists during his suicide. The audience gasped at the crimson rush of unrolling satin — a nice special effect. Virtù mopes forlorn and powerless as reason and the moral code are bowled over at every turn. A good pop of dramatic irony comes at the final curtain when the newly crowned Empress Poppea rises from her throne to stand triumphant with Nero. Just then, a bemused Amor sidles over and flops into the vacated seat, arms crossed, radiant in self-satisfaction. Not only does she pull the strings behind the seats of power, but she can subvert the title of the opera with a single final gesture, pulling our own strings, as well.