It's Baroque: Why Fix It?

Sex Triumphant . . .

Beyond the memories — pleasant, as far as they go — of The Coronation of Poppea with the Emperor Nero cruising his realm in a Ferrari bearing ROMA-1 license plates, and far beyond the abject journalistic misrepresentation of the pristine work in last week’s hometown press, two aspects of this extraordinary artwork demand our immediate consideration. One is the opera itself, dated 1643 in Venetian performance annals, surviving in manuscripts that show the possible work of hands other than those of Claudio Monteverdi (who bears the principal attribution), hands most likely those of students or close associates of the master much imbued with his own musical and dramatic insight. The second is the awareness that, fun and frolic as lively updatings like the Long Beach Opera escapades in the 1980s may have provided (and they did put the company on the map), the alternative — a reproduction of exactly what was seen and heard on the stages of Venice in 1643 — would surely drive a 2006 audience from the hall, myself in the lead. Somewhere in the middle, the production currently at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion accomplishes with glowing imagination to a 2006 audience what that premiere performance might have done in its time, but does so to eyes, ears and sensibilities honed by 363 years of intervening culture. It creates musical drama convincing, overwhelming, magical, four hours that whiz past like last week’s high winds.

This production of this rare, ancient and hugely powerful musical drama is an act of some bravery on the part of our local company. (The Metropolitan Opera, you will be interested to learn, has produced Monteverdi exactly once in its 120-year history: a cut-down, unstaged L’Orfeo in 1912.) The staging is from the Netherlands Opera, which sent us the Monteverdi Return of Ulysses in 1997. Both are works born from the fabulous imagination of Pierre Audi, with his extraordinary sense of the geometry of stage space and his use of fire as a spoken language amazingly, contrapuntally consistent with the sung language.

That sung language in the current cast is astonishing. Far removed though it be from Baroque ideals of crescendo, vibrato and attacca, it forms its own dramatic world: the intensity of Susan Graham’s creamy, importuning Poppea, her tiger’s claws cloaked in deepest velvet; the sheer nastiness of tenor Kurt Streit’s Nero (the most drastic “inauthenticity”; he is written as a castrato); the Wagnerian basso of the Seneca, the well-named Reinhard Hagen. An excellent, authentic touch: the nurse, Arnalta, sung falsetto as is proper by Christopher Gillett with costume to match; the comic drag nurse was to become one of Baroque opera’s most irritating clichés.

Harry Bicket’s small orchestra — long-necked theorbos (delightful to watch, like feeding ostriches), strings, harpsichord and an enchanting portative organ, a “carpet of starlight” I heard someone say, perhaps me — is nicely placed in a small recess downstage. “Stage” itself, as with Ulysses, consists mostly of empty spaces defined by single elements: a slanted pole, a ring, a sphere. It seems to bestride visually what the musical realization accomplishes for the ear: an artistic language of any and all times. You get the sense of floating in time, and in space as well.

That is part of the amazement of Poppea, something I don’t think those 1643 audiences could have grasped. Now, 363 years after the fact, we have this ethereal time/space journey, an ancient object beautifully restored to the sight and the sound of its original spirit. At the same time, we are confronted with this very modern opera. For the first time in operatic history, the characters are real, with names and listings in Plutarch (the Google of its day). They make their first entrance not in militaristic rhetoric but deep in conversation about how it was for both of them in bed last night. For the first (but not last) time, Evil (not Good) rules the roost at the final curtain. Just like Tosca, you say? No, better. This is where it began.

. . . And Beauty Too

There is a fierceness in Gerald Barry’s Triumph of Beauty and Deceit that hammers words and music into a single onward surge of energy. It was not surprising that the performance under Thomas Adès, by five excellent male singers and a contingent of Philharmonic players at last week’s “Green Umbrella” concert, left Adès himself with sopping shirt. The impact of the music, virtually nonstop, could easily be shared wherever you were in that vibrant hall.

Much was made of the work’s relationship to Handel, of whose Triumph of Time and Truth Barry’s score is a kind of treacherous paraphrase. Less was made of Barry’s countryman James Joyce, and yet the tumbling, headlong language rhythms, the rough impatience of the jig-time patterns seem at times to evoke the rough throbbings of Finnegan and of the great, atmospheric early works as well. The poetry is by Meredith Oakes, whose elegant paraphrase of Shakespeare’s The Tempest afforded Adès the remarkably free libretto for his recent opera on that play. Here her language is even trickier, indulging in delusions and rhyming paradoxes that then become wonderfully answered in Barry’s garrulous, immensely ingratiating score. If word got out that the score was actually the work of musically gifted leprechauns, it would not surprise me in the least. It would also help to explain the affinity the composer of such a work as the opera Powder Her Face might harbor for someone else’s music that seeks to elevate matters of truth, beauty, decay and deceit to a high artistic level. Both works, you see, were created in the same year.

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