21 April 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — TOSCA (A. LoBianco, S. Quinn, M. MacKenzie, S. Karabudak, D. Hartmann, J. Kato, T. Federle, R. Stenbuck, T. Keefe; North Carolina Opera, 7 April 2019)

IN REVIEW: soprano ALEXANDRA LOBIANCO as Tosca (left) and tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi (right) in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): ToscaAlexandra LoBianco (Floria Tosca), Scott Quinn (Mario Cavaradossi), Malcolm MacKenzie (Il barone Scarpia), Sabri Karabudak (Cesare Angelotti), Donald Hartmann (Il sagrestano), Jacob Kato (Spoletta), Ted Federle (Sciarrone), Rachel Stenbuck (Un pastore), Thomas Keefe (Un carceriere); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joseph Rescigno, conductor [David Paul, Director; Scott MacLeod, Chorus Master; Nick Malinowski, Children’s Chorus Director; Tláloc López-Watermann, Lighting Director; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 7 April 2019]

An opera lover who cited Gounod’s Faust as his favorite work, Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as stating that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’ The attribution resulting from a labyrinthine series of mistaken assumptions that is itself worthy of opera, it is unlikely that Lincoln actually penned those words, but the aphorism is consistent with his rustic wit. Were he a Twenty-First-Century musicologist, Lincoln might have used the sentiment credited to him to assess the enduring popularity of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, dismissed as a ‘shabby little shocker’ by noted critic Joseph Kerman six decades ago but still performed frequently throughout the world. When pondering the reasons for an opera’s prevalence in the international repertory, American presidential politics yields another nugget of wisdom: ‘the economy, stupid.’ Opera companies stage Tosca because audiences buy tickets to hear it. Productions of Tosca can indeed be shabby, little, or shocking, but the merits of a work that lures listeners who do not know Cavaradossi from Caravaggio to the opera should not be spurned.

Critics of his work who allege that he wrote saccharine melodramas with little musical distinction tend to neglect Puccini’s artistic ancestry. His great-grandfather was an organist, member of Bologna’s exclusive Accademia Filarmonica, and composer whose sacred music was admired by the celebrated Padre Martini. By the time of the younger Puccini’s birth in 1858, the family name was widely respected in his native Lucca, where the composer’s forebears had been maestri di cappella at the city’s Cattedrale di San Martino for more than a century. In addition to his exposure to his family’s musical legacy, Puccini’s education included studies with Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of La Gioconda, at Milan’s Conservatorio. Composing for the church having been in his blood, Puccini’s preference for the opera house likely incited disapproval among his fellow Tuscans, but the extraordinary success of his career surely vindicated the wisdom of his decision. Distinguished by musical values worthy of the world’s greatest stages, North Carolina Opera’s production of Tosca substantiated that, though liturgical music may have coursed through his veins, Puccini’s soul was fed by writing for the stage.

When Tosca premièred at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on 14 January 1900, Puccini’s career as a composer of opera had been legitimized by the tremendous successes of Manon Lescaut and La bohème. The notion of adapting Victorien Sardou’s 1887 drama La Tosca occupied Puccini even before the composition of Manon Lescaut, the musical potential of the rôle of the eponymous prima donna made famous by Sarah Bernhardt having engaged his creativity from his first encounter with the play. From the inception of Puccini’s interest in the project in 1889 until he began composition of Tosca six years later, legal and artistic maneuvering had the rights for utilizing Sardou’s play first in Puccini’s hands and then in those of his contemporary Alberto Franchetti. The task of writing Tosca’s libretto assigned to Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who contributed to the libretto of Manon Lescaut and refashioned Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème into the text of La bohème, Puccini became Tosca’s musical champion.

Illica’s and Giacosa’s influence notwithstanding, the dramatic atmosphere of Tosca more closely resembles that of his early opera Edgar, unsuccessfully premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1889, than the prevailing moods of Manon Lescaut and La bohème. Without surrendering to the temptation to over-emphasize the semblances between Tosca’s and today’s political climates, North Carolina Opera’s production placed the opera within logical contexts, both in Puccini’s compositional development and in the history of Rome in the Napoleonic era. Like Edgar, Tosca inhabits a dangerous, hostile world: inflicted physically and psychologically, violence was the most prominent resident of Raleigh’s Rome.

IN REVIEW: Maestro JOSEPH RESCIGNO and the North Carolina Opera Orchestra rehearsing for North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Pit, no pendulum: Maestro Joseph Rescigno and the North Carolina Opera Orchestra rehearsing for North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Director David Paul organized a staging of Tosca that filled the Memorial Auditorium stage with sights and situations that recreated Puccini’s and Sardou’s vision of turn-of-the-Nineteenth-Century Rome with commendable fidelity. Tosca is an opera of grand gestures, which can engender the sort of overwrought stage business that provides critics of opera’s dramatic verisimilitude with fodder for their arguments. Though the production was essentially traditional, Paul’s direction reflected a conscious effort to avoid the kind of conventional stand-and-sing inertia that undermines the theatricality of some performances of Tosca. The cumulative momentum of the opera’s narrative was refreshed without being injuriously rethought.

Paul’s endeavors were aided by Glenn Avery Breed’s costumes and Martha Ruskai’s makeup and wigs, all of which contributed to each character having a unique visual profile but also looking as audiences expect the people in Tosca to look. Designed for New Orleans Opera Association, David Gano’s sets sometimes imperiled dramatic clarity with sharply-angled sight lines, and, arrayed as it was in this production, the Attavanti chapel was as much a prison as the cell in Castel Sant’Angelo that Angelotti occupied. Not least in the representation at the beginning of Act Three of dawn gradually spreading its light over the rooftops of Rome, the sets were also splendidly evocative. An oddity in Tláloc López-Watermann’s otherwise sensible lighting designs—or an unfortunate malfunction thereof—marred the final scene of Act One: Scarpia’s blasphemously lecherous musing was rightly the principal focal point, but it was a disservice to the choristers to leave them in shadows as they sang the celebratory ‘Te Deum.’

Conductor Joseph Rescigno’s musical lineage rivals Puccini’s. His uncle, Nicola Rescigno, was a co-founder of Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the auspices of which he conducted the company première of Tosca with Eleanor Steber in the title rôle, as well as conducting Maria Callas in Bellini’s Norma and I puritani, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s La traviata and Il trovatore, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in LOC’s first two seasons. The younger Rescigno’s link to Callas, who is still widely recognized as one of the greatest interpreters of Tosca, is tenuous, but his pacing of North Carolina Opera’s Tosca exhibited the indefatigable musicality for which his uncle’s and the soprano’s performances were admired. Tempi were unwaveringly right for the music and the singers, and a remarkable degree of transparency was maintained in passages of densest orchestration. Rescigno engineered thrilling climaxes without rushing or overwhelming the cast. With its engrossing synthesis of intimacy and grandeur, Rescigno’s Tosca was sometimes shocking but never shabby.

Under Rescigno’s leadership, the playing of North Carolina Opera’s orchestra was fantastic, the woodwinds and brasses acquitting themselves with particular excellence. The sound of the organ that accompanied the ‘Te Deum’ was excessively loud, more redolent of the Mormon Tabernacle than of Sant’Andrea della Valle, but the tolling of bells was very capably handled. Harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett played elegantly whenever Puccini called upon her instrument, and the doleful clarinet obbligato in Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ received a profoundly expressive performance from David Ochler. Heard in the ‘Te Deum’ that ends Act One and the offstage cantata in Act Two, the choristers had fewer opportunities to impress, but, the adults trained by Scott MacLeod and the children by Nick Malinowski, they resoundingly seized those opportunities, singing powerfully and accurately.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor JACOB KATO as Spoletta, baritone MALCOLM MACKENZIE as Scarpia, and baritone TED FEDERLE as Sciarrone in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Roman triumvirate: (from left to right) tenor Jacob Kato as Spoletta, baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Scarpia, and baritone Ted Federle as Sciarrone in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

The unseen Pastore’s brief song at the start of Act Three was attractively sung by mezzo-soprano Rachel Stenbuck, a Cary native whose voice from offstage was both lovely and plausibly boyish. The Carceriere who guards Cavaradossi in the final moments before his execution was given an unusually notable presence by bass-baritone Thomas Keefe, a longtime member of NC Opera’s chorus. Baritone Ted Federle was a wily, dangerous Sciarrone who sounded like a lighter-voiced Scarpia in training, musically and dramatically. He advanced the amoral baron’s ruthless agenda with perverse joy evinced by firm, vibrant vocalism. Transitioning from baritone to tenor in this production, Jacob Kato depicted Spoletta as a hesitant henchman, his obedience prompted as much by fear of Scarpia as by loyalty. The quality of Kato’s instrument was apparent despite the rôle’s brevity, but the music’s tonal center of gravity did not yet sound wholly congenial for the voice.

IN REVIEW: tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi (left) and bass-baritone SABRI KARABUDAK as Angelotti (right) in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Man on the run: tenor Scott Quinn as Cavaradossi (left) and bass-baritone Sabri Karabudak as Angelotti (right) in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Aside from disclosing that he was by some means in communication with his sister, Marchesa Attavanti, Puccini and his librettists provided no specific information about precisely how the political prisoner Cesare Angelotti escaped from his bondage within the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo. In the person of bass-baritone Sabri Karabudak, he might well have blasted through the fortress wall with a well-aimed vocal bombardment. Fully convincing as a man running for his life, Karabudak sang as though he might evade his pursuers by hiding behind a wall of sound. The singer’s intonation was occasionally compromised by the intensity of his declamation, particularly at the ends of phrases, but his Angelotti was uncommonly empathetic, heightening the effect of the news in Act Two that, when discovered in the well at Cavaradossi’s villa, he took his own life rather than allowing himself to be recaptured by Scarpia. In many performances, Angelotti is little more than a personification of a plot device, but Karabudak made him a man of flesh and blood whose fate mattered.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Il sagrestano (center), with tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi (left), in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Man of God, more or less: bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Il sagrestano (center), with tenor Scott Quinn as Cavaradossi, in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

There is perhaps no more experienced interpreter of the rôle of Il sagrestano, the sacristan who oversees the daily operations of Basilica di Sant’Andrea della Valle, in America today than Greensboro-born bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, who has donned the cleric’s cassock—it is prescribed by canonical law that the sacristans of basilicas in communion with Rome should be ordained—in productions by an array of companies including Michigan Opera Theatre, Central City Opera, and Piedmont Opera. In North Carolina Opera’s Tosca, Hartmann was a Sagrestano whose only loyalty was to his charge, the church under his care, and he devoted every modicum of his courage and cunning to defending it first from Cavaradossi’s revolutionary proclivities and then from Scarpia’s violation of its sanctity.

A stage animal whose attention to detail can make moments of great significance of a production’s seemingly unimportant intricacies, he approached the character’s first scene as a duet with the Madonna, who rudely never responded. His refilling of the holy water font with a watering can was somehow transformed into a bizarrely sincere act of piety, and his exasperated exchanges with Cavaradossi echoed an intractable but endearing resistance to change. His reaction to Scarpia’s interrogation conveyed fear, suspicion, and loathing in equal measures. Endeavoring, mostly unsuccessfully, to corral the young choristers for the singing of the ‘Te Deum,’ Hartmann was the rare Sagrestano who did not seem like a pedophile. Hearing desiccated, wobbling tones in the Sagrestano’s music is commonplace, making the sonorous solidity of Hartmann’s singing all the more enjoyable. It could be argued that the talents of such an immersive, impactful-voiced artist are wasted on a part like Il sagrestano, but Hartmann’s performance suggested that this part is often wasted on singers who lack the imagination needed to completely inhabit the rôle.

IN REVIEW: baritone MALCOLM MACKENZIE as Scarpia in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Fanning the flames: baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Scarpia in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Some interpreters of Tosca’s antagonist, the sadistic superintendent of Rome’s Stasi-esque police, Barone Scarpia, inspire hatred solely by delivering the part’s music with Sprechstimme more appropriate for Berg’s Wozzeck than for a Puccini rôle. The villainy of baritone Malcolm MacKenzie’s Scarpia was all the more startling for being enlivened by appealing, impeccably-controlled vocalism. Not once in his commanding portrayal of the loathsome reprobate did he resort to shouting or snarling. At his first entrance, his declamation of ‘Un tal baccano in chiesa!’ instantaneously heightening the tension of the scene, it was apparent that faith was little more than a weapon in this Scarpia’s arsenal, one that he used to his advantage in manipulating the pious Tosca’s jealousy. MacKenzie’s Scarpia was unquestionably a bully but a treacherously seductive one, voicing ‘Tosca gentile la mano mia la vostra aspetta’ with chilling sultriness. In the final scene of Act One, the brash arrogance of MacKenzie’s portrayal indicated that Scarpia’s boldness before the Madonna was born not of a supplicant’s trust in intercession and absolution but of a misogynist’s sense of superiority.

The self-satisfaction with which MacKenzie sang ‘Tosca è un buon falco!’ at the start of Act Two made Scarpia’s stratagem sickeningly lucid. It was again the superb caliber of his singing that ignited the baritone’s characterization. The duplicity of the baron’s civility in questioning Cavaradossi was exemplified by MacKenzie’s mellow enunciation of ‘Ed or fra noi da buoni amici,’ his ability to adapt vocal colorations to nuances of text allied with unassailable technical assurance. There was a maddening insouciance in his pronouncement of ‘Nel pozzo del giardino - Va, Spoletta,’ his show of indifference calculated to insinuate that Tosca’s betrayal of Angelotti’s location was similarly nonchalant.

MacKenzie’s portrayal assumed a dimension of Shakespearean equivocation in the fateful scene with Tosca, the artifice of his chivalrous courtship accentuating his sardonic lust. Although protracted death struggles are not incompatible with the innate cowardice that escalates Scarpia’s cruelty, the lack of histrionics with which MacKenzie’s Scarpia expired was considerably more effective. [Admittedly, the melodrama of Scarpia’s death was commandeered in this performance by Tosca, whose repeated stabbing of Scarpia was disconcertingly cathartic, even receiving enthusiastic applause from the audience.] Eschewing excess, MacKenzie out-sang a number of the Tosca discography’s most acclaimed interpreters of Scarpia, bringing to the Raleigh stage a magnificently-sung performance of the rôle that made compelling virtues of the baron’s voice-battering vices.

IN REVIEW: tenor SCOTT QUINN as Cavaradossi in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Addio, Roma: tenor Scott Quinn as Cavaradossi in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Débuting in the rôle of the reactionary artist Mario Cavaradossi in this production, tenor Scott Quinn brought to the part a bright-timbred, focused sound that could be beautiful and piercing at once. On the whole, the success of his performance was achieved more by intelligent projection and engaging acting than by vocal amplitude. There were moments in which his lyric instrument lacked heft, but the earnestness of his singing provided the necessary dramatic muscle. The annoyance that permeated Quinn’s singing in his opening scene with Il sagrestano was an apt depiction of an artist’s reluctance to have his process observed by an outsider. With poetic phrasing and a ringing top B♭, he gave a lovely account of ‘Recondita armonia.’ Interrupted first by the disheveled figure whom he ultimately recognized as Angelotti and then by Tosca, Quinn’s Cavaradossi channeled his irritation into his vocalism. The tenor’s lines in the duet with Tosca were vividly sung, and Quinn denounced Scarpia’s brutality with an exhilarating exclamation of ‘La vita mi costasse, vi salverò!’

Few moments in opera are more beloved by tenors than Cavaradossi’s cries of ‘Vittoria!’ in Act Two of Tosca. Having suffered torture without divulging Angelotti’s whereabouts to Scarpia’s adjutants, Cavaradossi extols the unexpected news of Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo with long-held top As, fervently sustained by Quinn. Exultation quickly gave way to anger as Cavaradossi grasped that Tosca’s will was broken by hearing his groans of pain, but Quinn’s singing limned disappointment more discernibly than ire, lending his expression of despair at being separated from Tosca in Act Three added credence.

Quinn voiced that surge of sorrow, the well-known aria ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ entrancingly, neither crooning nor spoiling its expansive melodic arcs by over-singing. The aria was a deeply private reverie, and the almost childlike surprise with which Quinn reacted to her sudden appearance emphasized the link between Tosca’s arrivals in the first and third acts. His Cavaradossi seemed genuinely moved by the lengths to which Tosca went to save his life, and the tenor’s singing in their final duet was particularly impassioned. Quinn clearly approached his first portrayal of Cavaradossi with thorough preparation, and he conquered the demands of the music without overextending his vocal resources.

IN REVIEW: soprano ALEXANDRA LOBIANCO in the title rôle of North Carolina Opera's April 2019 of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Living for art, living for love: soprano Alexandra LoBianco in the title rôle of North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

In the 119 years since Tosca’s première, the title rôle has been sung by a broad spectrum of voices. The first Tosca, Hariclea Darclée, created the name parts in Mascagni’s Iris and Catalani’s La Wally, but she also sang Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and the heroine in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Historically, the most memorable Toscas can be said to have been those who, like Darclée, were stylistically versatile—artists including Callas, Magda Olivero, and Marisa Galvany. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco’s portrayal of Tosca for North Carolina Opera fleetingly recalled qualities familiar from the performances of famous Toscas of the past—Maria Caniglia’s and Zinka Milanov’s hauteur, Renata Tebaldi’s and Dorothy Kirsten’s sincerity, Sena Jurinac’s and Gilda Cruz-Romo’s femininity, Carol Neblett’s and Ghena Dimitrova’s abandon—but was also her own singular creation, crafted to capitalize on her considerable visual, dramatic, and vocal assets. [Paying homage to fellow Toscas who sang also Wagner heroines, notably Birgit Nilsson and Dame Gwyneth Jones, LoBianco will return to Raleigh in November 2019 to sing Brünnhilde in North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried.]

Calling to Cavaradossi from offstage, LoBianco’s repetitions of ‘Mario’ were the utterances of a woman who expected to be answered, and, unlike singers who simply enter, this Tosca emphatically made an entrance. In the subsequent duet with Cavaradossi, LoBianco alternated playfulness with bursts of pique and romantic ardor, drawing a kaleidoscopic portrait of a complex woman. Ensnared by ruthless exploitation of her vulnerability, there were tears when Scarpia produced fabricated proof of a liaison between Cavaradossi and Marchesa Attavanti, but LoBianco did not indulge in the embarrassing sniveling and exaggerated sobbing employed by some Toscas. All of Tosca’s music in Act One was capably, captivatingly sung.

Aside from its exciting top C, the cantata on which Scarpia eavesdrops in Act Two is not of great interest, musically, but LoBianco’s radiant singing uplifted the ensemble. Subjected to the torment of listening as Cavaradossi was tortured, her Tosca’s agitation reached a point of no return at which, not unlike Minnie in the poker game with Rance in Act Two of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, she played the only ace in her hand by trading Angelotti’s life for Cavaradossi’s. In LoBianco’s portrayal, this was the first glimpse of Tosca’s descent into the cycle of violence that consumed the world around her. The soprano’s performance of ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ was an oasis of beauty and tranquility in this desert of depravity and desperation. Her top B♭ gleamed, and she managed a ravishing diminuendo without sputtering on the final ‘così.’ Plunging the knife into Scarpia’s back with frightening ferocity, she sang ‘Questo è il bacio di Tosca!’ with astonishing subtlety. Forgoing the libretto’s instruction that Tosca should place a crucifix on Scarpia’s corpse, the aftermath of the stabbing was here a silent contest between Tosca and a small statue of the Madonna, fostering an analogy with the diva’s devotion to the Holy Mother in Act One.

LoBianco sprang onto the stage in Act Three with the euphoric sense of purpose of a youthful Brünnhilde determined to rescue Siegmund from Hunding’s vendetta. She voiced ‘Il tuo sangue o il mio amore volea’ with conflicting emotions, unashamed of her defense of her own and her lover’s lives but unnerved by the horror of taking a life. As LoBianco sang it, ‘Amor che seppe a te vita serbare’ was as meaningful a portal into Tosca’s psyche as the aria in Act Two. A measure of the character’s delicate vivacity returned in her final sequence with Cavaradossi, making her discovery that his execution was unfeigned wrenching. The blazing top B♭ with which LoBianco resolved ‘O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!’ echoed the aura of spiritual liberation that her Tosca gained in death. Symbolically paralleling her dorsal assault on Scarpia, this Tosca hurled herself into the Tiber with feline athleticism, unhesitatingly plunging backwards from the parapet. LoBianco’s Tosca died as she lived, following no one’s rules but her own. Musically, though, few Toscas other than Callas have served Puccini as faithfully as LoBianco did throughout the performance. This, North Carolina Opera demonstrated, is what is truly required to justify Tosca’s undiminished marketability.

17 April 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — FALSTAFF (R. Zeller, C. Blackburn, V. Erickson, L. Crenshaw, I. DeSmit, T. Beliy, K. Brotherton, M. Friedrich, L. Sparks, R. Powell; UNCG Opera Theatre, 4 April 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): FalstaffRichard Zeller (Sir John Falstaff), Christian J. Blackburn (Ford), Victoria Erickson (Alice Ford), Leanna Crenshaw (Nannetta), Ian DeSmit (Fenton), Tamara Beliy (Meg Page), Kayla Brotherton (Mistress Quickly), Michael Friedrich (Dottore Cajus), Lorenze Sparks (Bardolfo), Reginald Powell (Pistola); UNCG Opera Theatre Chorus and Orchestra; Peter Perret, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; Jonathan Emmons, Chorus Master; James Austin Porzenski, Assistant Chorus Master; Randall McMullen, Scene Designer; Caleb Taylor, Lighting Designer; Deborah Bell, Costume Designer; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 4 April 2019]

Be they the work of one man, one woman, or some unidentified consortium, the plays attributed to William Shakespeare have individually and collectively exerted influence on Western art to an extent rivaled by no other body of work. Writers have emulated, adapted, and expanded them, painters and sculptors have added visual dimensions to their characters and situations, and musicians have given melodies to their cadences. What might be described as the Shakespearean diaspora is perhaps more extensive in opera than in any other art form. Just as the plays have been translated into more languages than Shakespeare could ever have imagined, operas have rendered stories drawn from or inspired by Shakespeare in a broad array of musical styles. From the English Baroque of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to the Twentieth-Century modernism of Aribert Reimann’s Lear, Shakespeare’s uncanny mastery of dissecting, analyzing, and magnifying the most intimate mechanics of humanity has begotten similarly astute creations for the operatic stage, not least in scores by Giuseppe Verdi. He also planned a setting of King Lear that sadly never came to fruition, but with his early Macbeth and his valedictory serious and comic operas, Otello and Falstaff, Verdi produced a triumvirate of thrilling pieces in which the Bard’s timeless stories are retold with rousing Italian morbidezza.

Premièred at one of Verdi’s artistic homes, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, on 9 February 1893, Falstaff was the composer’s final opera and only his second comedy. His first effort at comic opera, Un giorno di regno, was composed during a time of personal tragedy, and the poor reception the opera’s inaugural production received in 1840 not only convinced Verdi that his affinity was for serious opera but nearly prompted him to stop composing operas altogether. Forty years later, it was with great reluctance that Verdi agreed to end his decade-long hiatus from composing new scores by setting Arrigo Boito’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The tremendous success of that enterprise paved the way for Falstaff, the libretto for which Boito masterfully assembled from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Parts One and Two of Henry IV. Doubting his instincts for viable comedy, Verdi toiled for three years over the composition of Falstaff, completing the score as his eightieth birthday neared. The hope for a repeat of Otello’s success proved to be well founded. Extolled as one of Italian opera’s greatest comic masterpieces, Falstaff crowned Verdi’s career with a score that continues to entertain and invigorate.

Sung in an amusing if none-too-Shakespearean English translation by Walter Ducloux [for the benefit of readers who are not acquainted with the English translation, textual references in this review adhere to Boito’s Italian], David Holley’s production of Falstaff for UNCG Opera Theatre ingeniously permitted a cast of undergraduate and graduate students to benefit from sharing the stage with world-renowned baritone Richard Zeller’s portrayal of the opera’s title rôle. Relocating the opera’s action from its original setting in the first quarter of the Fifteenth Century to the Victorian era was visually credible but occasionally at odds with the text. Neither lutes nor daughters trained to play them are likely to have been found in even the most affluent Victorian households, and, following the death of Prince Albert on 14 December 1861, Windsor was one of the principal seats of Queen Victoria’s prolonged grief for her consort. Moreover, the first tree claimed to be Herne’s Oak having fallen in 1796 and a second tree espoused by Victoria as the genuine oak following it to the arboreal graveyard in 1863, UNCG Opera Theatre’s merry wives might have encountered difficulties with selecting the locale for their recreation of the legendary huntsman’s fate.

Unsurprisingly, however, Holley’s direction sought and found the spirit of Falstaff in Verdi’s score, preferring the lighter hues of the music to its darker undertones but accentuating the ridiculous without overdoing the ridicule. Flawed and infuriating as he is, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is peculiarly endearing. In the supportive environment provided by Holley’s direction, Zeller’s characterization of Verdi’s Falstaff wielded genuine Shakespearean mystique.

Though mostly appealing, especially in the second part of Act Three, Deborah Bell’s costume designs and Caleb Taylor’s lighting did little to differentiate among singers of similar ages portraying characters of varying years and social stations. Alice Ford must not be frumpy, for instance, but costumes and coiffures can more effectively facilitate distinguishing that she and Nannetta are mother and daughter. In this production, that task was left to the young singers, who were already charged with singing some of the most difficult music in Italian opera. Randall McMullen’s set designs combined creative use of space with attractive utilitarianism: a frugally-minded director might also successfully stage the second acts of Lucia di Lammermoor and Der Rosenkavalier in McMullen’s rendering of Ford’s house in this Falstaff. Visually, the impression made by the production was more Dickensian than Shakespearean, but the staging validated W.H. Auden’s assessment in The Dyer’s Hand that Falstaff is ‘a character whose true home is the world of music.’

IN REVIEW: baritone RICHARD ZELLER in the title rôle in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Stag on the prowl: baritone Richard Zeller in the title rôle of UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

It is difficult for the most extraordinary production of Falstaff to thrive with an ordinary Falstaff. Despite countless audiences having endured badly-sung performances, the unfortunate misconception that, in opera, comedy equates with music that is easy to sing persists. Richard Zeller’s portrayal of Falstaff for UNCG Opera Theatre offered a lesson in the art of embodying operatic hilarity without sacrificing musical integrity. Vitally, the baritone’s English diction was consistently clear.

In Act One, Zeller sang ‘Ecco la mia riposta’ with an apt insinuation of bourgeois ennui, and he rose to the top F in ‘L’arte sta in questa massima’ with ringing virility that suited the text. The conversational brusqueness of his parlando passages was complemented by the elegant legato of his voicing of ‘So che se andiam la notte.’ The slightly decrepit lecher’s carnal appetite was delightfully apparent in Zeller’s reading of ‘M’arde a l’estro amatorio nel cor,’ the voice mellifluously conveying libidinous passion. Vexed by Bardolfo’s and Pistola’s protestations against the dishonor of delivering amorous messages to Alice Ford and Meg Page [that duty was fulfilled by the old knight’s page Robin, charmingly acted by Dean Hennessee], this Falstaff’s ‘Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia?’ was an expression of indignation of cyclonic force. The top Gs were not wholly comfortable, but a voice with effortless top Gs is unlikely to be a suitable instrument for Falstaff’s music.

The ebullient personality that Zeller crafted in Act One was meticulously maintained in the two subsequent acts. It was only in the sense of the character’s more advanced age that Zeller was obviously a veteran performer amongst a cast of twenty-somethings: he brought a buoyant impishness to Falstaff’s antics. In the first scene of Act Two, he voiced the brilliant soliloquy ‘Va, vecchio John’ with the rich tone and dramatic finesse that it deserves. Duped by the Ford ladies and their cohorts, Zeller’s Falstaff suffered accompanying the laundry into the Thames with the dread of an accomplished trickster getting a taste of his own medicine. The first scene of Act Three can differentiate an eminent Falstaff from a merely proficient one, and the vulnerability that mingled with the self-pity in Zeller’s depiction of the crestfallen man’s emergence from his riparian comeuppance identified him as a Falstaff of superlative intellectual perspicacity.

The singer’s balletic entrance into Windsor Park in the opera’s final scene emphasized Falstaff’s relish of his own cunning, but his trepidation when he realized that he was the prey rather than the predator was touching. The bitterness of Falstaff’s declaration of ‘Ogni sorta di gente dozzinale’ was convincingly followed by the self-deprecating good humor of ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla,’ both sung sonorously by Zeller. In the Verdi canon, Falstaff is a rôle in which many fine exponents of Macbeth, Rigoletto, and Iago have failed. Giuseppe Taddei, a standard-setting interpreter of ‘vecchio John,’ understood that, musically and dramatically, Falstaff is a brother not of his fellow Verdi characters but of Donizetti’s Dulcamara and Don Pasquale. In this performance, Zeller exhibited complete cognizance of this distinction. As the cliché goes, this Falstaff’s bark was more perilous than his bite, but Zeller barked considerably less than many Falstaffs.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor LORENZE SPARKS as Bardolfo, baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Falstaff, and bass REGINALD POWELL as Pistola in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Bosom[-loving] buddies: (from left to right) tenor Lorenze Sparks as Bardolfo, baritone Richard Zeller as Falstaff, and bass Reginald Powell as Pistola in UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

An asset to the performance as great as Zeller’s interpretation of Falstaff was the presence of Peter Perret on the podium. The longtime Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, Perret has regrettably been an infrequent presence in performances of vocal music in North Carolina’s Triad region in recent seasons. A stirring performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures—a piece that was first performed only six years after Falstaff’s première—with the Winston-Salem Symphony and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves some years ago revealed the conductor’s affinity for marshaling vocal and orchestral resources, and his pacing of Falstaff confirmed that his leadership remains strikingly lucid and eloquent.

Aided by Jonathan Emmons’s expert training of the chorus, Perret supervised the edification of a musical foundation that unassailably supported the score’s abundant marvels. Again, this is not easy music, the mercurial ensembles and intricate contrapuntal writing bringing many performers to grief. There were moments of uncertain coordination between stage and pit in this performance, but Perret navigated a sagacious course through the opera’s challenges without losing anyone along the way. Orchestral playing adhered to a commendably high standard, though here, too, there were occasional missteps. Woodwinds were especially, inexplicably, and sometimes distractingly prominent, a condition observed in other performances in this venue but perhaps not discernible from the pit. Experience demonstrates that Perret is too sensitive a collaborator to permit any section of the orchestra to dominate the soundscape. Even with the English text, which can cause Italian opere buffe to sound disconcertingly like Savoy operas, Perret ensured that Verdi’s voice was always audible.

Engaging a singer of Richard Zeller’s reputation to interpret the title rôle in this production of Falstaff is evidence of the respect that David Holley commands in the opera community, but the greater accomplishment—and the one that is the truest measure of his importance to opera, both in and beyond Greensboro—is the quality of the ensemble of young artists he assembled to learn from Zeller’s Falstaff. Though his responsibilities as the proprietor of the Garter Inn required no singing, Liston Kidd was committed as innkeeper, chorister, and prankster on stilts. Michael Friedrich’s implacable Dottore Cajus complained of being swindled and schemed to claim Nannetta’s hand in matrimony with equal enthusiasm and tonal solidity. Tenor Lorenze Sparks and bass Reginald Powell sang Bardolfo’s and Pistola’s music with vocal assurance and sure-footed comedic timing, not least when decrying the disgrace of Falstaff instructing them to dispatch his billets-doux to the objects of his romantic infatuation.

IN REVIEW: soprano LEANNA CRENSHAW as Nannetta (center) in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Sylvan songstress: soprano Leanna Crenshaw as Nannetta (center) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Verdi composed the rôle of Mistress Quickly in Falstaff for Giuseppina Pasqua, who had sung Eboli in the 1884 première of the revised version of his Don Carlo at La Scala and was acclaimed in both Naples and Milan for her portrayals of Preziosilla in La forza del destino and Amneris in Aida. The tessitura of Quickly’s music separates her from her Verdian sisters, but Kayla Brotherton’s singing in Greensboro affirmed the character’s musical pedigree. Epitomized by her emblematic utterances of ‘Reverenza,’ Quickly’s low compass necessitated tonal placement that deprived Brotherton’s lovely voice of opportunities to be heard to optimal advantage. Nevertheless, the panache with which she sang ‘Quell’uom è un cannone’ in Act One and Quickly’s lines in her exchange with Falstaff in the first scene of Act Two disclosed her carefully-honed artistic prowess. In the final scene, Brotherton intoned ‘Cavaliero, voi credeste due donne così grulle’ lustrously, her feisty vocalism animating the character’s part in the woodland escapade. Vocally, Mistress Quickly is not a congenial part for young singers, but Brotherton’s performance was that of a seasoned professional.

Tenor Ian DeSmit brought to the lovesick Fenton precisely what Verdi wanted but so seldom receives: a dulcet, youthful timbre and a gratifyingly straightforward depiction of an impressionable but ardent man in love. In Act One, DeSmit sang ‘È un ribaldo, un furbo, un ladro’ handsomely before joining with Nannetta in an account of ‘Labbra di fiore!’ that exuded innocent rapture, his bright top B♭ punctuating their playful banter. This Fenton voiced his aria that begins Act Three, ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola,’ with smooth tone and suave phrasing, convincingly limning the character’s fervor without distorting the delicate melodic line. That he laudably delivered his impassioned words of love to Nannetta rather than bawling them to the audience meant that DeSmit’s voice did not always project strongly into the house, and he was the foremost victim of the acoustical imbalance between stage and pit. He was too shrewd to force his voice in pursuit of volume, instead relying upon his dynamic acting. DeSmit’s performance highlighted Fenton’s sincerity, his awareness of the stakes in the game of chance orchestrated by the ladies making the swain far more than the pretty-voiced cipher that he is in many productions.

DeSmit’s Fenton was ably partnered by the effervescently mischievous Nannetta of soprano Leanna Crenshaw. In both her conspiratorial discourse with her mother, Meg, and Quickly and her flirtatious interactions with Fenton, this Nannetta was sweetly girlish but also very much her own woman. She voiced ‘Labbra di foco!’ with understated bliss, her floated top A♭s suggesting subtle teasing of her eager lover. In consort with Alice and the ladies, the gleam of her top Bs imparted a very different attitude, one of determination to avenge Falstaff’s affront to womanhood. Crenshaw’s voice soared in ensembles and in Nannetta’s Act Three song with the pantomime fairies, ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.’ Often entrusted to diminutive voices, Nannetta’s music benefits tremendously from a fuller sound such as Crenshaw’s, and the soprano’s unaffected thespianism fostered a captivating portrayal of the Fords’ plucky daughter.

IN REVIEW: baritones RICHARD ZELLER as Falstaff (left) and CHRISTIAN BLACKBURN as Ford (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Martin Kane, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Men about town: baritones Richard Zeller as Falstaff (left) and Christian Blackburn as Ford (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Martin Kane, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

With the respective dramas of the elder and junior branches of the House of Ford dominating the opera, Meg Page is marginalized in some productions of Falstaff. Soprano Tamara Beliy’s Meg in UNCG Opera Theatre’s Falstaff could not be overlooked, her vocal confidence paralleled by her vivid characterization. In her reading of Falstaff’s letter to Alice, Beliy declaimed ‘Fulgida Alice! amor t’offro’ with genuinely amusing fury. Her Meg seemed more gobsmacked by the stupidity of Falstaff’s sending of identically-worded letters to herself and Alice than by the indiscretion of his intentions. Whether strategizing or exacting vengeance, Beliy sang incisively. Like Brotherton, the music assigned to her in this Falstaff did not enable Beliy to display the best of her vocal artistry, but her portrayal of Meg was one of the best aspects of this Falstaff.

A quick-thinking champion of women’s independence who masterminds triumphs over both a bumbling seducer and a jealous husband, Alice Ford is a worthy sister of opera’s greatest feminist protagonists. In UNCG Opera Theatre’s Falstaff, Alice waged her wars against male domination with pointed wit and sparkling tone, wielded with comedic potency by soprano Victoria Erickson. Upon her arrival in the second scene of Act One, her Alice took charge of the drama like a military commander, singing ‘Facciamo il pario in un amor ridente’ and ‘Falstaff m’ha canzonata’ like calls to arms. Her resolute top Bs and earnest attempts at the trills were testaments to her technique and preparation, especially as every note of her music was sung with the appearance of spontaneity.

Erickson’s talents as a comedienne were invaluable in the hubbub of Act Two: even as Falstaff trumpeted his objections from the laundry basket, Alice remained the center of attention, her elation as Ford, expecting to surprise his wife with her paramour, discovered Nannetta and Fenton behind the screen galvanizing the ensemble. As Alice’s plans came to fruition in Act Three, Erickson’s vocalism became still bolder, the character’s ascendancy crowned by the singer’s rousing top C. Most consequentially, Erickson led her fellow ladies in avoiding confusing The Merry Wives of Windsor with The Taming of the Shrew. Though clearly pleased with the outcome of her quest for retribution, Erickson’s Alice stopped short of gloating, enjoying her supremacy without unpleasantness.

Though Falstaff is the title character and the focal point of the comedy, Ford is the opera’s ‘Verdi baritone’ rôle in the tradition of Rigoletto, Rodrigo di Posa, and Iago. This is not always perceptible in performances of Falstaff, but baritone Christian Blackburn furnished UNCG Opera Theatre’s production with a Ford who comprehended and respected the rôle’s significance in the lineage of Verdi’s writing for the baritone voice. Dramatically, Blackburn lent Ford the natural authority that he should wield even when, whilst impersonating Fontana in order to gain Falstaff’s trust without being suspected of being Alice’s husband, subjected to a silly disguise, but it was his singing that served Verdi most honorably. In Act One’s second scene, he voiced both ‘Sorveglierò la moglie’ and ‘A lui m’annuncierete’ powerfully, deepening his interpretation of the rôle beyond the possessiveness that defines some Fords. The intelligence and expressivity with which Blackburn sang ‘È sogno o realtà’ in the first scene of Act Two introduced the ambivalence of Ford’s sentiments at once being deadly serious and amusingly pompous in the opera’s broader context.

Merely as vocalism on a suitably Verdian scale, Blackburn’s account of ‘Io già disposi la rete mia’ in Act Two was admirable, and his theatrical savvy heightened his connection with the text. There was a bemused smugness in the baritone’s pronouncement of ‘Già s’avanza il corteggio nuziale’ in Act Three, his Ford having figuratively counted his chickens before they hatched, and this was followed by an unmistakably bitter articulation of ‘Chi schivare non può la propria noia.’ Rather than lingering over his wounded pride, this Ford rejoiced in having a wife such as Alice, whose machinations were a credit to the family’s standing in their community. Throughout the performance, his comfort with the full range of the music, his nuanced phrasing, and the maturity of his portrayal of the insecure but devoted husband and father belied Blackburn’s youth, further marking him as a singer whose wondrous promise is already being realized.

An integral component of the lasting comic effectiveness of Verdi’s final opera is the fact that at some point in life almost everyone meets a Falstaff. Perhaps he is not portly, of a certain age, philandering, or even male, but he is undeniably a kinsman of Shakespeare’s iconic denizen of the Garter. The splendor of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Falstaff was the open-hearted happiness with which it renewed acquaintance with this old friend. Above all, this production was a reminder that, his superb music notwithstanding, Verdi’s greatest accomplishment in Falstaff is perhaps encouraging people of different ages, faiths, and lifestyles to sit shoulder to shoulder in a darkened theater, laughing together in a world that thrives on the pain of division.

04 April 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi — L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA (A. Crider, K. Sulayman, K. Pracht, N. Tamagna, M. Treviño, M. Harvey, M. Molomot, N. Heinen, N. Hill, N. Huff; Florentine Opera Company, 30 & 31 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643): L’incoronazione di Poppea, SV 308Amanda Crider (Poppea), Karim Sulayman (Nerone), Katherine Pracht (Ottavia, La Virtù), Nicholas Tamagna (Ottone), Matthew Treviño (Seneca), Melissa Harvey (Drusilla, Amore), Marc Molomot (Arnalta), Nicole Heinen (Valletto, La Fortuna, Famiglieri), Nathaniel Hill (Liberto, Tribuno, Soldato pretoriano, Famiglieri), Nicholas Huff (Lucano, Famiglieri, Littone, Soldato pretoriano, Console); Florentine Opera Baroque Ensemble; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord and conductor [Robin Guarino, Director; Melissa Benson, Costume Designer; Noele Stollmack, Set Designer; Mary Ellen Stebbins, Lighting Designer; Erica Cartledge, Wig and Makeup Designer; Debra Loewen, Choreographer; Florentine Opera Company, The Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; 30 and 31 March 2019]

Whether an expedition’s breadth is measured in miles, days, or feelings, it cannot be disputed that, literally or figuratively, the greatest journey begins with a single step. That step is not always steady, does not invariably advance the journey in the intended direction, and cannot unfailingly be perceived by uninvolved observers, but its significance is often immeasurable. Opera existed prior to the première of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in 1607, but it was Monteverdi’s work that propelled the art form from its emergence in works like Jacopo Peri’s Dafne and his earlier L’Orfeo, the score of which is lost, to the entity that continues to evolve and thrive in the Twenty-First Century. Regrettably, only three of Monteverdi’s operas—L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea—survive in substantially complete form, each of them an important step in opera‘s advancement. Presented in the beautiful and aptly-sized Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Florentine Opera Company’s production of L’incoronazione di Poppea provided an enlightening and marvelously entertaining opportunity to take this momentous step in opera’s history anew.

First staged in Venice’s Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, L’incoronazione di Poppea was Monteverdi’s final opera, its première during Carnevale 1643 coming only a few months before the composer’s death. Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s libretto for the opera assimilates material taken from sources including Dio Cassius, Tacitus, and Gaeus Suetonius Tranquillus, conjuring a daringly theatrical but sometimes historically dubious glimpse into the Roman emperor Nero’s reign. There continues to be debate about the origins of the opera’s music, some of which, including much of the writing for Ottone and the widely-known final duet for Poppea and Nerone, is attributed with varying degrees of plausibility to composers including Francesco Sacrati, Benedetto Ferrari, and Francesco Cavalli. Whether Monteverdi himself assembled the disparate parts or supervised a collaborative process is unknown, but Florentine Opera’s Poppea was remarkably cohesive, musically and dramatically.

IN REVIEW: harpsichordist and conductor JORY VINIKOUR (foreground), with violist ​MARIKA FISCHER HOYT (left) and violinist ​KANGWON LEE KIM (right), in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]Master of Monteverdi: harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour (foreground), with violist ​Marika Fischer Hoyt (left) and violinist ​Kangwon Lee Kim (right), in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

In practical terms, the success of this show owed much to the edition of the score specially prepared for this production by harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour. Incorporating Tarquinio Merula’s ​C-major ​Ciaconna​ (Opus 12, No. 20)​ to open the second of the two parts into which this production was divided and judiciously adapting the version of the score devised for the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival by conductor and musicologist Stephen Stubbs, Vinikour circumvented the piece’s potential longueurs to produce a fast-paced drama that faithfully preserved the essence of Monteverdi’s and Busenello’s convoluted but absorbing narrative. Poppea poses many problems, extant Seventeenth-Century manuscripts dating from productions staged after the composer’s death, but those problems were persuasively solved in this production. Honoring both Monteverdi and the customs of his time, Vinikour’s performing edition achieved ideal equilibrium between humor and hostility.

Several landmark productions of L’incoronazione di Poppea utilized lavish evocations of the hedonistic splendor of Nero’s Rome as backdrops for the opera’s intimate drama, sometimes distracting audiences’ attention away from crucial interactions among characters. For Florentine Opera’s staging, director Robin Guarino took a minimalist approach, scaling the action to match the dimensions of the story and the space in which it was being told. Guarino’s realization of Poppea examined the ways in which the lives and destinies of all of the characters are upended by a river of blood that runs through the opera’s metaphysical terrain like a fault line; or, in this production, like the ball of scarlet yarn that was gradually unwound to symbolically bind the characters and their actions in a single linear progression.

The conditions that in Monteverdi’s time might have been viewed as inflammations of the blood—lust, ambition, betrayal, rage—were explored in imagery like that of the chair occupied by Seneca bathed in red light during Poppea’s garden scene, intimating that the sage’s spilled blood stained the future empress’s hands. Mary Ellen Stebbins’s intuitive lighting and Noele Stollmack’s utilitarian set designs visually manifested Guarino’s concept, and Melissa Benson’s costumes and Erica Cartledge’s wigs and makeup insightfully reflected the moral and sexual ambiguities of the characters and their relationships, dichotomies further advanced by Debra Loewen’s choreography. History indicates that, despite his imperial pedigree, Nero was no stranger to flamboyant depravity. In Florentine Opera’s visit to Nero​​’s Rome, his milieu was colorfully ribald but never overtly vulgar.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Vinikour presided over an ensemble of musicians who brought to this production of L’incoronazione di Poppea a degree of period-appropriate authenticity now commonplace in Europe but still quite rare in American theaters. Violinists Allison Nyquist and Kangwon Lee Kim, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and cellist Jennifer Morsches played with historically-informed articulation that combined crisply-executed ornamentation with gratifying tonal warmth and body. The incisiveness of Morsches’s phrasing was extraordinary, her instrument an integral voice in the opera’s discourses. The continuo was completed by Deborah Fox and David Walker, whose playing of theorbo and Baroque guitar provided a firm, flexible pulse. The placement of the harpsichord, a bright-toned double-manual instrument built by and loaned to Florentine Opera by Bryan Gore, in the theater’s small orchestra pit introduced the challenge of stage-right action occurring beyond Vinikour’s range of sight, but the coordination between stage and pit was impeccable. Cuing singers and instrumentalists with instinctual timing whilst playing the harpsichord with the technical acumen for which he is renowned, Vinikour guided performances that demonstrated mesmerizing musical and emotional continuity.

IN REVIEW: baritone NATHANIEL HILL (left) and tenor NICHOLAS HUFF (right) as the Soldati pretoriani in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]Spirited soldiers: baritone Nathaniel Hill (left) and tenor Nicholas Huff (right) as the Soldati pretoriani in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

Each portraying multiple rôles, three of Florentine Opera’s 2018 - 2019 Baumgartner Studio Artists contributed sonorously to the consistent excellence of the production’s vocalism. Baritone Nathaniel Hill sang and acted skillfully and attractively in all of the rôles assigned to him, but it was as Liberto, the captain of the Praetorian guard ordered by Nerone to relay to Seneca the grim news of the imperial prerogative demanding the stoic’s death, that he was most impressive. Aided by the ​voice​’s handsome timbre, the sincerity of his expression of regret at finding Seneca though doing so was his mission, a moment often depicted lightheartedly, was unexpectedly affecting. Tenor Nicholas Huff was also fully convincing in all of his guises but was most memorable as the poet Lucano (the historical Marcus Annæus Lucanus), who joins Nerone in a bravura duet celebrating the death of Seneca. Staged in this production as a cruel game of drunken seduction that culminated in Nerone slashing Lucano’s face in an outburst of petulant, jealous neurosis, the scene was electrified by Huff’s vocal and dramatic fearlessness. First heard as the golden-voiced Fortuna in the opera’s brief Prologue, soprano Nicole Heinen later faithfully served Ottavia as the opinionated Valletto. She delivered ‘Madama, con tua pace, io vo’ sfogar la stizza’ with exasperation that unmistakably limned the character’s disapprobation for Seneca and threatened to perpetrate arson on the philosopher’s property and person with an incendiary statement of ‘Che vo’ accenderti il foco, e nella toga, e nella libreria.’ All three of these gifted young artists displayed voices and stagecraft that qualify them for prominent careers.

IN REVIEW: soprano MELISSA HARVEY as Drusilla in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]Loyalty under fire: soprano Melissa Harvey as Drusilla in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

Both in the Prologue and in her appearances elsewhere in the opera, soprano Melissa Harvey sang the music for Amore with wonderful brio, the exuberance of her personification of the goddess’s confidence making the triumph of her agenda seem inevitable. Though the prowess with which she distinguished one character from the other was particularly commendable, the playfulness with which she brought Amore to life also animated her portrayal of Drusilla. In this production, Drusilla was an oasis of earnestness in an expanse of duplicity, her affection for Ottone charmingly flirtatious and ultimately fatefully profound. Declaring Drusilla’s love for Ottone, Harvey used the music as a blueprint for constructing a multi-dimensional characterization of the optimistic, fiercely determined young woman. Joyously surrendering her cloak to disguise Ottone for his attempt on Poppea’s life, her devotion to claiming a new life with the man she loved was sweetly touching. Harvey’s singing was unfailingly lovely and stylistically right, but the scene in which she falsely confessed to attacking Poppea in order to save Ottone’s life impelled operatic emoting of the highest order. Immense but deeply personal tenderness flooded Harvey’s voicing of ‘Adorato mio bene, amami anche sepolta,’ but, as ever, the integrity of the musical line was maintained.​ Consequentially, Nerone’s sole act of mercy in the opera is inspired by Drusilla, and it was impossible to imagine even the most stony-hearted emperor condemning Harvey’s endearing, sparklingly-sung Drusilla.

IN REVIEW: tenor MARC MOLOMOT as Arnalta in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]Lady of the house: tenor Marc Molomot as Arnalta in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

Casting tenor Marc Molomot as Poppea’s nurse and confidante Arnalta was as inspired in its way as partnering Kirsten Flagstad’s Brünnhilde with Lauritz Melchior’s Siegfried. Bringing extensive experience with Early Music to this production, Molomot was an Arnalta who upheld Seventeenth-Century conventions but set a standard of his own in the rôle. Warning Poppea of the dangers of her liaison with Nerone and of men’s general fickleness, this Arnalta was genuinely funny but also discernibly genuine. Assigning the high line in the madrigal in which Seneca’s followers lament his fate to Arnalta, who spied on the scene of the philosopher’s demise, was ingenious, closing the gap between the public and private worlds that shape the opera’s cataclysmic confrontations and lending the music an arresting immediacy. Arnalta’s lullaby for Poppea, ‘Oblivion soave,’ is one of the most exquisite pieces in Seventeenth-Century opera, and Molomot sang it with piercing expressivity that so entranced the audience that merely breathing seemed to disturb the scene’s serenity. Awakened by Amore at the moment of Ottone’s approach, Arnalta exulted in rescuing her mistress from the murderous blade with a stirring traversal of ‘Ho difesa Poppea,’ sung in existing Venetian and Neapolitan libretti by Amore but fruitfully given to Arnalta in this production.

Contemplating the vastly different circumstances that awaited Arnalta upon Poppea’s ascent to the throne, Molomot sang ‘Oggi sarà Poppea di Roma imperatrice’ with an aura of vindication. The tenor’s affinity for Monteverdi’s musical language was always perceptible, but the true glory of his performance was the emotional complexity of his portrayal. Molomot’s Arnalta unquestionably cherished the prospect of upward social mobility, but she also loved and feared for Poppea: the passage in which she asked Poppea to remember her after becoming empress, a moment that typically goes for nothing, was here very moving. An act as seemingly superfluous as chasing after the banished Ottone with the bag that he carried throughout the opera but left behind when sent into exile was made meaningful by Molomot’s artistry. In this Poppea, the eponymous lady received the crown, but her humble servant won the laurels.

IN REVIEW: bass MATTHEW TREVIÑO as Seneca (center), with (from left to right) tenor NICHOLAS HUFF, baritone NATHANIEL HILL, and soprano NICOLE HEINEN as Seneca's followers, in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]The mortality of morality: bass Matthew Treviño as Seneca (center), with (from left to right) tenor Nicholas Huff, baritone Nathaniel Hill, and soprano Nicole Heinen as Seneca’s followers, in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

Few rôles in works of any era of operatic history are as difficult to cast as that of the august philosopher Seneca in L’incoronazione di Poppea. Ideally, the character should possess the vocal dexterity of Samuel Ramey, the dramatic presence of Martti Talvela, and the histrionic impact of Boris Christoff. This amalgamation of qualities is as impractical as Richard Strauss‘s desire to have for the title rôle in his Salome an adolescent singer with an Isolde voice, but bass Matthew Treviño depicted the man of knowledge with technical assurance, dignity, and imposing vocal resonance. Futilely striving to comfort the wronged Ottavia with platitudes about attaining virtue through suffering, the bass sang ‘Ecco la sconsolata’ commandingly, evincing Seneca’s belief in the precepts that he advocated. There was a palpable sense of solace in Treviño’s voicing of ‘Solitudine amata,’ and this contrasted tellingly with the philosopher’s fraught exchange with Nerone, whose resolution to repudiate Ottavia he denounced as an ethical affront to Rome.

Receiving from Liberto formal communication of the emperor’s lethal pronouncement, an eventuality foretold by his own reasoning, Treviño’s Seneca prepared for death with the tranquility that governed his life. The solemnity with which he intoned ‘Amici, è giunta l’ora’ elicited empathy for the man beneath the philosophical persona, a response heightened by this Seneca’s affectionate farewell to his friends, who seemed not merely to follow his teachings but to care for him. Treviño sang ‘Itene tutti, a prepararmi il bagno’ nobly, relinquishing Seneca’s life to imperial prerogative with a majestic low D. Like all of the characters in L’incoronazione di Poppea, Seneca is not altogether above reproach, but Treviño portrayed him as an honorable man whose principles are not compatible with the treacherous world in which he lives.

IN REVIEW: countertenor NICHOLAS TAMAGNA as Ottone in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]Pensive patrician: countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Ottone in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

That countertenor Nicholas Tamagna’s beautifully-vocalized and grippingly heartfelt portrayal of Ottone—not the Holy Roman emperor who would later become the hero of Händel’s Ottone, incidentally—often received laughter from the audience is evidence of the perils of projected supertitles. Though undeniably beneficial, not least in minimizing the language barrier as justification for avoiding opera, supertitles often render period-specific conceits in translations that are correct but complicated by modern connotations markedly differ from what librettists sought to convey. From the urgent utterance of ‘E pur io torno qui’ with which he made his entrance to the final note of the part, Tamagna was an Ottone whose inner turmoil was revealed in singing of boundless energy and musicality. The pain of Ottone’s awareness of Poppea’s affair with Nerone coursed through the countertenor’s voicing of ‘Ad altri tocca in sorte,’ and his subsequent colloquies with Poppea imparted the agony of unrequited love.

The anxiety and self-doubt with which Tamagna sang ‘Otton, torna in te stesso’ offered a portal into the character’s soul. The torment of forsaking the past and embracing new realities reverberated in his vocalism and surged through his body language. One of the emotional climaxes of the production was Ottone’s assertion of ‘Drusilla ho in bocca, e ho Poppea nel core,’ enunciated by the singer with radiant tone that accentuated the anguish of Ottone’s predicament. The character found no relief in the scene in which Ottavia ordered him to slay Poppea. Unnerved by the task, this Ottone declaimed ‘Eccomi transformato’ with desperation and self-loathing, feelings that were compounded by guilt when Drusilla was apprehended and accused of his crime. Tamagna gave a subtle performance of Ottone’s confession, his pride broken by misfortune. Monteverdi and Busenello left no hints about whether Ottone can ever be truly happy with Drusilla, but Tamagna’s portrayal inspired the hope that Ottone finds peace.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano KATHERINE PRACHT as Ottavia in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]A woman scorned: mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht as Ottavia in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

The tragic irony of L’incoronazione di Poppea is that the lady who holds the greatest power is least able to use it to her own advantage. It is the empress Ottavia’s sad lot to be the wife of Nerone, an inconstant lover who respects neither laws nor customs. Already cognizant of her husband’s trysting with Poppea, Ottavia roared into the drama with a galvanizing exclamation of ‘Disprezzata regina,’ wielded by mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht, whose singing as Virtù in the Prologue was equally adroit, like a thunderbolt with which she meant to wound her errant husband and his paramour. This Ottavia’s renunciation of Seneca’s praise for her resilience was not unkind, but there was no doubt that she was a woman who expected to be obeyed. There was haughtiness in her demand that Ottone carry out her order to murder Poppea at once, especially in her voicing of ‘Tu che degli avi miei avesti le grandezze,’ but the character’s momentary viciousness was depicted by Pracht as an outward show of internalized humiliation.

In Pracht’s performance, Ottavia’s impassioned farewell to Rome and her rightful position, ‘Addio, Roma,‘ was heartbreaking, her voice cascading through the stumbling, wrenching music with regal poise. The ritualistic eloquence with which she discarded the physical trappings of her status breathed the air of Greek tragedy, Pracht giving her Ottavia an aura of living martyrdom. She inhabited the rôle with the dramatic force of Cathy Berberian and the vocal magnitude of Frances Bible, but her Ottavia was a meticulously-wrought character study enlivened by unstinting vocal beauty. No Fricka taking refuge amongst theorbos, Pracht’s Ottavia was a woman enduring indignity on her own terms, defeated but not destroyed.

IN REVIEW: tenor KARIM SULAYMAN as Nerone, with mezzo-soprano AMANDA CRIDER as Poppea, in Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]Lover without limits: tenor Karim Sulayman as Nerone, with mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider as Poppea, in Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

Recipient of the 2019 GRAMMY® for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album for his Avie disc Songs of Orpheus, tenor Karim Sulayman is a noted exponent of music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries. The rôle of Nerone in L’incoronazione di Poppea was written in soprano range and first sung by a castrato, but aligning the character’s gender identity with modern sensibilities by allocating the part to tenors remains typical. The register change was far more successful here than in many productions, but Sulayman’s singing intermittently lost impact where it was most needed, primarily at the ends of phrases at the lower extremity of his range. The sensuality of his portrayal was often entrancing, however, and his voice exuded eroticism in his first scene with Poppea. Savagely suave, his Nerone pursued his amorous quarries with the stealth of an inveterate predator. Declaring ‘Son risoluto insomma’ with unapologetic arrogance, the fury that Sulayman’s Nerone expended in dismissing Seneca’s moral arguments was startling.

Manipulated by Poppea’s insinuations that his political power was undermined by his boyhood tutor, Nerone impetuously ordered Seneca’s death, but Sulayman’s depiction of the emperor was enriched by fleeting signs of remorse. The sheer virility of the tenor’s singing of ‘Or che Seneca è morto, cantiam, cantiam Lucano, amorose canzoni’ was exhilarating, his utter immersion in the drama making a scene that might have been crude bizarrely fascinating. His cruelty in punishing first Drusilla and then Ottone for the attempted assassination of Poppea was a product of gnawing uncertainty. Sulayman voiced ‘Ascendi, o mia diletta’ dulcetly, but, here and in the final duet, he was never entirely at ease with Poppea. Something was held back, some element of his psyche that could not be conquered even by a siren as hypnotic as Poppea. Nerone is sometimes portrayed as an amoral sociopath, but Sulayman’s Nerone was more self-indulgent than evil. The dusky patina of his tones added to his dark allure: it was possible to both see and hear why so many moths perished in his flame.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano AMANDA CRIDER in the title rôle of Florentine Opera's March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]En route to the throne: mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider in the title rôle of Florentine Opera’s March 2019 production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea
[Photograph by Kathy Wittman, © by Ball Square Films]

Perhaps surprisingly, the title character in L’incoronazione di Poppea is arguably one of the most modern women in opera. Inviolably independent, she weaponizes her femininity in her quest for power and molds men according to her purposes. Nerone is volatile, but Poppea is calculating: her strategizing easily dominates his rashness. Florentine Opera’s Poppea, mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, wielded beauty and charisma with scheming acumen. In her opening scene with Nerone, the efficacy of every syllable of her ‘Signor, deh non partire’ was carefully considered. Her affection for the emperor may well have been unfeigned, but it was employed as a means to her end. Crider sang ‘Speranza, tu mi vai il genio lusingando’ bewitchingly, her daring increasing as Nerone’s infatuation with her grew more insurmountable. Repeating ‘No, non temo, no, di noia alcuna’ like a mantra, Crider’s Poppea blissfully defied Arnalta’s warnings about the changeability of the emperor’s heart.

Crider tightened Poppea’s grip on Nerone with a tantalizing voicing of ‘Come dolci, signor, come soavi,’ her words targeting his ego as accurately as his libido. In her interview with Ottone, though, there was a glimmer of the woman Poppea was before obsession with winning the imperial crown honed her ruthlessness. The mezzo-soprano sang ‘Chi nasce sfortunato’ with annoyance, but there were passages in which pity for Ottone softened her demeanor. Rejoicing in accomplishing her goal to be empress, this Poppea’s elation shone as resplendently as the gold with which she was adorned. The pulchritude of Crider’s vocalism in the concluding duet with Nerone, ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,’ was spellbinding. One of the production’s most effective contrivances was bringing all of the characters affected by Poppea’s intrigues back onto the stage to witness her coronation, and Poppea’s final encounter with Ottone as he gravitated to her but was supplanted by Nerone just before making contact was emotionally devastating. Crider’s Poppea was deceitful and unscrupulous, but this imaginative artist also disclosed the vulnerability and humanity that make Poppea one of opera’s most engrossing protagonists.

Productions of Seventeenth-Century opera remain infrequent in America. The alternating ariosi and stylized recitatives of Italian operas of this period intimidate some listeners whose principal operatic acquaintance is with later repertory. It is often said that opera without easily-excerpted set-piece arias and large-scaled ensembles is dull and interminable, deserving the quip made about enduring an hour’s worth of music in a Wagner opera and discovering that only a quarter-hour has passed. Time was irrelevant in Florentine Opera’s production of L’incoronazione di Poppea: every character’s drama played out at an organic pace, intersecting in a ruminative but diverting meditation on loyalty, love, and loss. Whether in First-Century Rome, Seventeenth-Century Italy, or Twenty-First-Century Milwaukee, these themes are cornerstones of the human experience. Florentine Opera’s L’incoronazione di Poppea indisputably attested that it is only modern perceptions of Monteverdi’s music that are antiquated.