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Opera review: Eastman Opera Theatre's 'L'incoronazione di Poppea' 

Eastman Opera Theatre continues to impress with presentations brimming with excellent singers and professional production values. This time around, it was Claudio Monteverdi's final opera "L'Incoronazione di Poppea." Performed in Italian with English supertitles, this production of "The Coronation of Poppea" at Kilbourn Hall was also notable for its use of period instruments, and for the musical direction by Paul O'Dette, who led the chamber orchestra from his chair as theorbo player. With firm tempi and an ear toward authenticity, Odette and company were not merely steady collaborators: the instrumentalists were at all times sensitive to the phrasing of the singers, and their coordination with one another was impressive.

The opera's plot is rather straightforward: The Roman emperor Nerone plans to divorce his wife Ottavia and make his lover Poppea the new empress. To do so, he must first bypass the inconveniently principled philosopher-adviser Seneca and the vengeful plans between Ottavia and Ottone, Poppea's former lover, to assassinate Poppea. With help from the gods and goddesses, love is at last rewarded.

It was clear from the start that there was no such thing as minor characters in stage director Stephen Carr's production. Given voice by strong singers, the minor roles got to shine. Soprano Natalia Hulse possessed a refreshing, bright tone as the spritely yet resolute Amore; the robust, booming bass of James McCarthy was ideal for the stoic might of Mercurio; and Tyler Cervini and Henry Dean provided delightful comic relief as two soldiers.

The opera's central characters were similarly well-cast. Athene Tsz Wai Mok portrayed Poppea as coquettish and cunning, a person for whom the quests for love and power were indistinguishable. Mok's lighter soprano voice was also capable of great fortitude, evincing a bubbly yet incisive vibrato that added gravitas to Poppea.

Kevin Bryant was excellent as Nerone, and his multifaceted personality made him the most fascinating and complex character on stage. The tenor Bryant played Nerone as naive, impetuous, and malleable: impressionable and docile in the presence of Poppea, but stubborn and ill-tempered in the public eye. With a clear, pleasant voice, Bryant's Nerone was ruled entirely by his infatuation with Poppea, which seemed to drive him to near-madness. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Bryant and Mok seemed somewhat superficial, and appeared to lack a connection.

Soprano Brianna Robinson's Ottavia was a true force, with a smoky tone that was somber in one moment and fiery in the next. And as Seneca, bass Michael Galvin was perhaps the most distinguished, disarming singer in the opera. His magnificent voice was deep and resonant, possessing great lyricism.

As is the case with most Eastman opera productions, the greatest strength of "L'incoronazione di Poppea" was the consistent vocal talent throughout the cast. Each singer embodied his or her character with an honesty and earnestness that made each scene intriguing, no matter how seemingly insignificant the action.

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