"The modern composer builds his works on the basis of truth." So declared Claudio Monteverdi, back when "modern" referred to the beginning of the 17th century. He left us the most striking demonstration of that philosophy in his last opera, "L'incoronazione di Poppea" ("The Coronation of Poppea"). It sticks uncomfortably close to the truth about Nero's Rome, where, as one character puts it, "the innocent suffer while criminals are doing very nicely."
Immorality has never sounded so beautiful.
Wolf Trap Opera unveiled a classy and sexy new production of the work Friday evening at the Barns of Wolf Trap, tapping much of the musical richness in the score and effectively underlining the libretto's brilliant mix of nobility, earthiness, stoicism, vanity, sorrow and humor.
Resourceful director Gregory Keller has the action unfolding in such a naturalistic, unaffected manner that it's easy to forget that this is a 358-year-old opera. Aided by Dipu Gupta's sleek set design and Bobby Pearce's neo-Roman costumes, Keller's concept suggests a hybrid of old gladiator movies and hip music videos.
Toss in an assortment of off-color Italian hand gestures, some mature-audience-only behavior (including the de rigueur homoerotic spin on the scene between Nero and his poet friend Lucano, here set in a bath house), and occasional bursts of silliness (a stuffed toy skeleton, for one), and this "Poppea" certainly makes an arresting visual statement.
It makes a strong musical one, too. Conductor David Fallis emphasizes the conversational element in Monteverdi's music. There's never any lack of breathing room when arias bloom from the recitative, but Fallis ensures that they sound as seamlessly integrated into the proceedings as the composer intended.
The young cast pays keen attention to words and phrases, while offering astute characterizations across the board, and the high level of acting compensates a great deal for any vocal unevenness.
Looking rather like Ginger on "Gilligan's Island," soprano Cynthia Watters made her entrance as the ambitious Poppea on Friday in a form-hugging evening gown that gave her a timeless, irresistible vampiness. A silken, flexible, highly expressive voice capped her assured, deliciously evil portrayal.
The role of Nerone (Nero) was assumed by Michael Maniaci, identified as a "male soprano," rather than countertenor. That may be the best description for his voice, which has a certain lightness and brightness of timbre, without as much of the nasal sound associated with many countertenors. A warmer timbre would have given Maniaci's singing even more distinction, but his performance grew in nuance and communicative force as the evening progressed.
A sometimes harsh and uncentered tone limited the impact of Elizabeth Shammash's performance as Nero's forlorn wife, Ottavia, though she brought emotional weight to the great "Farewell to Rome" scene. As Poppea's spurned lover, Ottone, Keith Phares used his beautifully rounded baritone with keen insight. Derrick Parker's ample bass-baritone and eloquent phrasing gave a commanding presence to Seneca, Nero's doomed political philosopher.
Mezzo Julie Bartholomew needed more vocal firmness in her dual assignment as Poppea's nurse and the goddess of Virtue. Tenor Scott Scully's drag turn as Ottavia's booze-guzzling nurse was a hoot; he also took on a couple more secondary roles ably. Soprano Anna Christy charmed as Cupid and Ottavia's page. Other generally effective multiple-role-takers were tenor Eric Cutler, bass Joshua Winograde, sopranos Stacey Tapan and Jessica Jones. The male chorus sang firmly.
One of the production's greatest assets is the accomplished and stylistically sensitive orchestra of period instruments, re-creating the alternately pastel and vivid coloring of Monteverdi's ever-rewarding opera.
The final performance of "The Coronation of Poppea" is at 8 p.m. today at the Barns of Wolf Trap, Vienna, Va. Tickets are $48. Call 703-218-6500.