The Coronation of Poppea

In the summer of 1997, when National Geographic declared in a two-part article on the Roman Empire that "their story is our story," little did they know how deep and unflattering the comparisons go. Leave it to Ken Cazan, who directs Central City Opera's current production of Claudio Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea to show us.

Set in front of a series of utilitarian post-modern sliding panels emblazoned with the crest of Rome and staged with insight into the 364-year old baroque opera's hidden comedic elements as well as the more obvious tragic themes, the production delves deeply into the decadence and denial at the heart of all imperialist societies.

Left to Right: Jessica Tarnish as Fortuna, Christine Brandes as Poppea, and David Walker as Ottone
(L to R) Jessica Tarnish as Fortuna,
Christine Brandes as Poppea,
and David Walker as Ottone
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
At the center of this depravity and delusion is Nero, the Beast himself, from whose name and title the numerological summary 666 in Revelations was originally derived. As the gold lamé-clad Fortuna warns Virtu, "Hide yourself," for in such a kingdom as this, you are passé.

Christine Brandes as Poppea and Phyllis Pancella as Nero
Christine Brandes as Poppea
and Phyllis Pancella as Nero
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Indeed, the story begins as the emperor, having forsaken his wife, Ottavia, is in the throes of a passionate affair with Poppea, a beautiful and ambitious plebian. From there, the drama details the schemes by which the leader of this lead-poisoned nation and his consort, Poppea, murder and banish anyone standing in the way of their selfish fulfillment. We are even treated to a homoerotic scene between Nero and Lucano.

Given the rumors that swirl around our own Caesar—For whom did the gay escort Jeff Gannon visit the White House over 200 times? How close are Condi and George?—the personal parallels not to mention the political ones seem obvious. Nero's claim to be "above the law," that "might makes right," and that "power rests on hate" could have been interpolations from any contemporary evening newscast emanating from the Beltway.

For apolitical opera fans, there is plenty to crow about as well. The ten-piece Early Music ensemble is a treat, featuring a variety of period instruments, including two theorbos, a lute, a viola da gamba, a violoncello, a vilone and two harpsichords, conducted by Maestro Nicholas Kraemer of Great Britain, making his U.S. operatic debut.

Monteverdi is generally credited as the father of opera—significantly refining a form barely 50 years old at the time—and The Coronation of Poppea is considered his greatest work. In contrast to the recitative patterns seen in later operas, the libretto here more closely resembles the linearity of a Greek epic, and its historical subject matter sets it apart from the ephemeral works that preceded it.

The vocal arrangements are exotic, while requiring an appreciation of the 17th-Century Italian preference for soprano in both heroic and romantic leading roles, whether male or female. So, with the castrati (thankfully) no longer an option and gender identity in as much flux now as it was in the waning days of Rome, this production is creatively cast with mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella as Nero, soprano David Corn as Amore, countertenor David Walker as Ottone, and countertenor Jason Abrams as Arnalta. Corn is one of only a few working male sopranos and his crystalline tones are a treat among a panoply of impressive and delightful voices. Both countertenors are beguiling.

Christine Brandes as Poppea, with David Korn as Amore (behind), and other Muses
Christine Brandes as Poppea,
with David Korn as Amore (behind),
and other Muses
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Christine Brandes's soaring soprano—highlighted in a series of compelling arias as Poppea—and sexy good looks leave no doubt that Amore is in her corner, and further why Nero is hopelessly in love with her and willing to sacrifice his Empress and the great philosopher Seneca in her pursuit. Pancella's mezzo blends beautifully with Brandes, adding to a night of stellar vocals: Marcia Ragonetti's emotive, haunting soprano and royal beauty imbues Ottavia with the aura of a tragic heroine; Kevin Langan's powerful bass underscores Seneca's wisdom and spiritual attainment; and there's more.

The only glitch in the entire production was the difficulty in seeing the supertitles due to their diminutive stature, the glare from the stage lighting, and the brightly lit signage hailing the story's moral (if the term can be applied to such behavior), "Amor Vincit Omnia."

Central City Opera's The Coronation of Poppea runs in repertory with Mozart's Don Giovanni and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe through August 6th. 303-292-6700, 800-851-8175, or at

Bob Bows

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