The academic year goes by quickly, especially with a holiday break half-way through. The Princeton University Opera Theater always takes on a challenging opera to be presented shortly after the winter break, but it is hard to imagine Princeton’s operatic students and faculty undertaking a production as testing as Claudio Monteverdi’s TheCoronation of Poppea so soon after break. Fifteen singers, accompanied by harpsichords, strings, lutes, and theorbo presented Monteverdi’s final opera this past weekend, demonstrating the depth of vocal and instrumental talent in an opera which even the Metropolitan Opera would find daunting.
Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the opera was repeated on Saturday night) was staged with pairs of musicians on either side onstage and a small string ensemble in the pit. The directorial team led by conductor Michael Pratt and director Ethan Heard sought to complement a production of the same opera in 2001, featuring countertenor and Princeton student Anthony Roth Costanzo, now on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. This year’s production featured a number of University singers also headed for promising careers in music.
The Coronation of Poppea harks back to opera’s beginning; with an Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, it was one of the first operas to use historical events and real people as subject material. Princeton University’s production was primarily in English (with translation by Peter Westergaard, Wendy Heller, and Arthur Jacobs), with the original Italian retained at specific moments, such as in a late duet between Nero and Poppea. The singers were accompanied by an appropriate combination of harpsichords, played by Nicholas Lockey and Jason Nong; as well as lute and theorbo, played by Charles Weaver and Daniel Swenson alternating among instruments. All of these period instruments spoke well in the hall, with the lute and theorbo accompaniment easily balancing the singers as solo instruments.
The description of the opera’s Prologue could easily be used to describe the state of the world today: “Fortune and Virtue argue about who holds the true power of the world; Love proclaims his supremacy.” Accompanied by a nice light touch from the strings, Fortune and Virtue, sung by Allegra Wiprud and Sarah Cooper, respectively, solidly opened the production. Ms. Wiprud, costumed a bit like Lady Gaga, showed a voice with a good ring in the hall and well handled the extensive recitative text. Ms. Cooper deftly handled the extensive runs of Virtue’s role. Varshini Narayanan joined Future and Virtue onstage as the character of Love, bringing an energetic and nymph-like interpretation to her role throughout, with consistently impressive movement and singing.
The Coronation of Poppea revolves principally around the illicit love affair between Nero and Poppea, both married to others. Contrary to Italian morality of the time, the adulterous relationships prevail, with Nero’s wife Octavia and Poppea’s husband Otto banished in exile. The two students cast as the leads Nero and Poppea have worked very hard toward probable careers in singing. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has proven his scholarly and performance command of music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and soprano Katie Buzard has been refining her vocal skills both at Princeton and the Royal College of Music in London. Mr. Cohen took command of the stage immediately, showing that the extensive vocal runs (precursors to the coloratura fireworks of the subsequent decades) were squarely in his wheelhouse, showing no trouble at all with the vocal demands of Nero’s role. Ms. Buzard demonstrated a sparkling top register, also keeping the 17th-century Italianate style well in hand. Monteverdi’s music, revolutionary for its melody and humanism, served the text and the emotions conveyed by the singers, and both of these performers never lost sight of the connection among these elements.
The two hapless spouses of these conniving individuals were also well performed. Countertenor Michael Manning sang the music of Otto, deliberately composed to show Poppea’s husband as tentative and timid, lyrically, and demonstrating despair well. Marie-Gabrielle D’Arco, singing the role of Nero’s wife Octavia, sang with incredible richness and maturity and showed that she will have no trouble pursuing her chosen career in opera as she powerfully executed the almost exclusively dramatic recitative-style. Operas of the early 17th century feature upper voices, and the one significantly lower voice in this production was Jonathan Choi’s interpretation of the philosopher Seneca. Seneca’s music is bold and wide-ranging, and Mr. Choi was especially effective in the extreme lower register. In addition to the onstage Baroque instruments, conductor Michael Pratt effectively led a small ensemble of strings to support the singers. Most impressive among the strings was cellist Nathan Haley, who provided a great deal of specific accompaniment to arias and extensive solos.
Following its premiere in the mid-17th century, The Coronation of Poppea was neglected until the late 1800s and achieved new popularity in the second half of the 20th century. For a university opera company to take this production on could have been an invitation for difficulties and frustration, but the Princeton University Opera Theater provided itself to be more than up to the task.