By Claudio Monteverdi
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Directed by Christopher Alden

Reviewed by Judy Richter

As part of its summer Femmes Fatales Festival, the San Francisco Opera is staging a musically satisfying, dramatically unsettling production of Claudio Monteverdi's 1642 L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Patrick Summers, who conducts and plays harpsichord for a score he devised himself, presides over a first-rate orchestra and cast.

This cast features Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose as Poppea, the amoral, ambitious mistress of Nerone (Nero), emperor of Rome. Donose has both the physical and the lush vocal beauty to make her Poppea the object of men's lust. She's well-paired with countertenor David Daniels as Nero. Although hearing such a pure, high voice coming from such a virile man takes some adjustment, there's no doubt about his musicality. He's a most accomplished singer.

Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, a native San Franciscan, plays Nero's wronged wife, Ottavia (Octavia), with an air of dignity, anger and tragedy combined with lustrous singing. The fourth principal is Puerto Rico-born baritone Mel Ulrich, an Adler Fellow, as Ottone (Otho), Poppea's former lover. He's a promising young singer who manages to impress despite being misdirected to spend much of his time staggering about or rolling on the stage as various emotions overcome his character.

Other prominent characters include the philosopher, Seneca, authoritatively sung by English bass Robert Lloyd; Otho's adoring Drusilla, sung by Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva; and Poppea's nurse, Arnalta, a travesty role sung by British tenor Barry Banks. Making small but notable contributions are soprano Christina Lamberti, an Adler Fellow, as Fortune; soprano Nicolle Foland as Virtue; boy soprano Marc Day as Cupid; tenor Norman Shankle, another Adler Fellow, as Valletto, Octavia's page. All of the other singers also do well.

One minor musical problem is the occasional use of the organ, which clashes with the period musical instruments and seems intrusive.

Where the production runs into its most serious problems, though, is in Christopher Alden's staging. At times it's vulgar, as when Nutrice (Martha Jane Howe), Octavia's nurse, brushes her hands over Octavia's breasts. Other times it's distracting, as in the scene where Nero's soldiers come to arrest Drusilla, who has been accused of trying to murder Poppea. As she pleads her innocence and they point their spears menacingly toward her -- a serious, dramatic moment -- Arnalta flirts with other soldiers upstage, distracting from and diluting the power of the central action.

On the other hand, Alden handles some scenes effectively, as when the exiled Octavia moves slowly, silently downstage before singing her final lament. The last scene, when Nero and Poppea sing a glorious duet celebrating their marriage and her coronation as empress, finds them facing each other without touching. Instead Poppea's crown sits on a red pillow between them -- a clear indication that their future together is likely to be rocky. This scene contrasts with their first scene together: As Nero leaves Poppea's house early one morning, they embrace passionately, again and again.

Designer Robert Perdziola's set is inspired by the Roman Coliseum, while his costumes range across time and geography from a black, modern business suit for Otho to Hindu-inspired garb for Seneca and his three followers and ancient Roman-touched uniforms for the solders. Thomas J. Munn's lighting is generally effective.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:26 PST