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‘The Coronation of Poppea’ took the audience’s breath away

| Sunday, April 27, 2014

coronation_of_poppea_WEBMARIA MASSA | The Observer
To bring my more-musical-than-usual weekend full circle (which is difficult to pull off), I attended Sunday’s matinee of “The Coronation of Poppea.” This was more or less a last minute impromptu improviso, my excuse as to why I huffed and puffed my way across campus, arriving at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center fashionably late, missing the opening remarks (oh bother), but just in time for the opera itself (snaps!). Catching my breath in the back row, I was surprised to find myself losing it once more at the first note, because I realized this French student didn’t know much Italian beyond “grazie.” Mercifully, the theatre took this into account, and I shortly discovered subtitles projected above the stage.

However, let’s not talk about my precious breath when the lungs and respiratory systems of those onstage were a marvel to witness. I lost my breath as quickly as I regained it once my ears took in the subliminal simple composition counterbalanced with the complexity of the lyrics, beautifully sung by a cast of 11, all of whom are students, with an ensemble of 20. Due to the show’s length and run, two casts shared the main roles, one set performing Thursday and Saturday and the other on Friday and Sunday. A handful of brave souls did all four performances. Talk about stealthy vocal chords. Despite the cast size, the stage never appeared overcrowded with extra bodies. Stage director Mark Beudert was flawlessly able to transition what historically took place in ancient Rome to a 1940s/1950s era in this interpretation of Poppea.

The opera was composed by Claudio Monteverdi with the libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello. I had to dig through the stacked layers of music lessons from years past to recall a familiar tune or idea of Poppea. On my brisk walk over, I did a last minute Google search. This being my first opera experience at Notre Dame, however, I decided to surrender my quest for reason to the virtue of the art itself. After all, Monteverdi’s audiences didn’t have search engines to cheat them out of plot lines, so why should I deny myself an authentic participation?

What made “The Coronation of Poppea” so appealing, besides its phenomenal cast, was its revelation, the way each word and element of the plot exposed itself in secrecy, in public or to no one but the audience. The imagery here could be credited to the sultry style of the libretto or to costume designer Lynn Holbrook for capturing Emperor Nero’s burning desire and use for Poppea in a breathtakingly red wardrobe. All the dapper attire and props fit this historical drama surprising well, as did the content.

A noble lord named Ottone returns home to discover that his wife, Poppea, has entangled herself (literally) in an affair with the emperor of Rome, Nero, who is not at all covert about the whole thing as they make public appearances together, fully intending to be married as soon as possible. Sounds like wishful thinking, right? It’s not as rosy as it looks. Nero is secretly using Poppea for his own coup. Wait! There’s more. Poppea is also using Nero as a ladder to increase her power, ultimately climbing up to the level of empress and overthrowing Nero’s poor wife Ottavia. Gasp! Why all this crazed drama? Blame the gods! No, seriously. Three divine spirits, Fortune, Virtue, and Love, incarnate themselves as humans to mingle amongst the characters.

Bad morals are typically the aspects of many forms of entertainment from which audiences learn lessons of some sort, but usually the good morals are the ones that win out in the end. Not in Nero’s Rome. This is a territory in which virtue is punished and greed is rewarded, but that’s what makes this opera so alluring. Thematic elements aside, this story is timeless, because it exemplifies for humanity the strange and unfair terms by which this world is governed. There is no fairytale ending, because in reality there wasn’t one. What was satisfactory for Nero and his palate of power at one time contented neither him nor Rome for too long.

That being said, I am glad I went into this Rome “blind,” and did subsequent research following. It made for a much more enticing spectacle. Tingling the audience’s fancy for soap-opera (pun-intended, though this is far superior) love triangles and political loopholes, “The Coronation of Poppea” is a fine and fiercely accurate portrait of what measures people of power will take for their own selfishness, nothing more, nothing less.

The production’s last heartbeat captured this perfectly. Poppea is the last one onstage with a single spotlight on her adding a final touch of vibrancy in her success. And that is all. The spotlight shrinks. It closes, caging her. She is empress. She is alone. Now what?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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