Review: Sexy Poppea pulls no punches in Aspen concert |

Review: Sexy Poppea pulls no punches in Aspen concert

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

There’s nothing like ancient Rome to make for stimulating drama, in all senses of the word, especially if it involves the emperor Nero. Include Poppea, the mistress who maneuvered her way into becoming his empress, add Monteverdi’s still-fresh music, put a cast of attractive, young singers in the hands of a master of early music, and how can you lose?

Aspen Opera Theater Center’s production, which debuted Thursday and repeats one last time tonight, has all of that and a production that pushes the boundaries of taste. (Well, it is ancient Rome, after all.) Director Edward Berkeley’s ideas are legion, and most of them work. He puts all the characters into modern dress to reflect their positions, for example, thus avoiding the confusion of everyone wearing togas and robes.

Seneca (the scraggly haired but sonorous David Salsbery Fry), Nero’s tutor, looks like a rumpled teacher in a brown cardigan. Poppea (the flame-haired, curvy Rebecca Nathanson) wears short, tight-fitting dresses and ultra-high red heels when she isn’t parading around in her intimates.

After a shaky start, Nathanson’s voice grew to warm and inviting directions during the course of the opera. With much to sing, she commanded attention as much with her sound as her looks. She vamped rather obviously, and perhaps that was the point, considering the ending Berkeley tacked on. The final thrust was indicated neither in the libretto nor in the gorgeous duet that closes the opera.

Nero, of course, was famous for an orgiastic lifestyle, indicated in this production by an apparent appetite for both sexes. But turning his private quarters into a leather bar, frequented by all of his guards, produced unintended consequences when his wife, Ottavia (the resplendently voiced Kiri Parker) show up there in leather gear to order Ottone to murder Poppea. Wouldn’t they conduct this dangerous business somewhere — oh — secret?

Of course, this being early opera, roles written for castrati (men neutered so they had high voices) are today usually sung by women. Thus we had mezzo-sopranos Allegra De Vita singing Nerone and Victoria Fox as Ottone (Poppea’s original lover), who in the original libretto is a general returning from war but here seems a briefcase-toting businessman returning from a sales trip (albeit with a shoulder-holstered pistol).

Both were impressive, De Vita maintaining an androgynous authority along with smoothly sinuous singing, Fox floating Ottone’s music to reflect the character’s confusion and frustration. Notable performances that further enlivened the proceedings included a passionate turn from lanky soprano Julia Dawson as Drusilla, the lady of court who is love with Ottone, and realistic comic relief from mezzo-soprano Stephanize Zadownik as Arnalta, Poppea’s crotchety confidant. The action is framed with an argument among the gods of love, fortune and virtue over who has the most power over humans.

Countertenor Caleb Barnes, clad in gold with expansive golden wings, voiced Amore with splendid richness and vitality, clearly enjoying himself as he used the story to show up rival gods Fortuna (soprano Oriana Dunlop, dressed, um, sleazily) and Virtu (soprano So Young Park, in a sparkly nun’s habit). In the end, what mattered most was the music, all centered around an all-original-instruments ensemble in a pit raised almost to stage level. Glover created an energetic and colorful vibe, conducting her own edition of the score, emphasizing Monteverdi’s ability to sketch a scene or a character compactly. It moved along smartly, pausing only for the occasional sweet moment.

The final duet, probably the most famous music in this opera, did not linger but pulsed with ardor.