Delicious Debauchery

In The Sign of the Cross, Cecil B. DeMille's magnificent 1932 epic film about Nero's persecution of the early Christians, the debauched Empress Poppea, the "wickedest woman on earth," showed her sybaritic side by taking a bath in asses' milk. Played by Claudette Colbert, Poppea frolicked nude and gossiped about the latest court sex scandal as cats lapped up the froth by the opulent marble poolside.

Three hundred years earlier, in opera's first masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppea, composer Claudio Monteverdi gave us the story of Poppea before she became empress, sans tub. Even without a bath scene and Christian martyrs, it's a doozy of a tale and one hell of an opera. It's also one of Houston Grand Opera's most elegant productions to date -- a bacchanal for the eyes and heaven for the ears.

If you're going to update an early-Baroque opera set in ancient Rome and drop the togas, this is the way to do it. Imported from Bologna's Teatro Comunale and directed with savvy by the celebrated English theatrical whiz Graham Vick, with clever sets and glamorous costumes designed by Paul Brown, this staging plops Nero's reign squarely into Fascist Italy at the time of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist and Vittorio de Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The movie references aren't random. By setting Poppea during the reign of Mussolini, Italy's modern Caesar, Vick and crew evoke the ultimate fantasy world of celluloid gods and goddesses.


The Coronation of Poppea

Wortham Theater Center, 510 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Through May 12. $20-$300.

Like all Baroque operas, Poppea is a convoluted mix of illicit passion, disguises, godly interferences and emotions run wild. The scheming she-wolf Poppea, who desires power more than love, entices married Nero into her bed. Everyone who gets in their way -- Empress Ottavia, Nero's wife; imperial counselor Seneca, who disapproves of Nero's dissolute life; nobleman Ottone, who loves Poppea; Drusilla, who loves Ottone and tries to help him kill Poppea -- dies or is banished. Victorious in her quest, Poppea marries Nero and is crowned empress.

The production plays homage to Baroque opera conventions while keeping its tongue in cheek. When Amore (a sprightly Camille Zamora) descends from the flies on wires as a deus ex machina, he's a little blond sailor boy in Bermuda shorts and kneesocks; when Mercury (a sonorous Ryan McKinney) announces Seneca's imminent suicide, he's an all-in-white 1930s preppie with tennis sweater and club tie wrapped as a belt; and when Venus (a voluptuous Fiona Murphy in both voice and figure) lounges languidly on the spiral staircase surrounded by chubby cherubs blowing bubbles, she looks every inch like Veronica Lake with peek-a-boo bob and gown by Travis Banton.

This update works because the overlaid concept isn't an empty conceit: Pagan Rome, Art Deco Hollywood and Baroque fantasyland Venice, where Poppea premiered in 1642, have much in common. Besides, what sleek, contemporary diva doesn't look good in a bias-cut gown? How about a divo? During a gay tryst, even Nero (sleek and full-voiced tenor William Burden) sports a stunning ruby-red evening gown with matching boa and opera gloves. Seemingly over the top, even this scene has historic precedence: According to ancient Roman chronicler Suetonius, Nero married a favorite while dressed in wedding drag. (Speaking of drag, there's a Dame Edna moment in which gladioli are tossed into the audience, and Poppea's nurse Arnalta is played in amusing camp travesty by tenor Joseph Evans.)

Poppea is filled with history. Not only is it opera's first masterpiece, but the world's first opera house opened in Venice five years before Poppea did. Monteverdi's genius was just what this nascent art form needed. The "king of madrigals" gave a distinct, dramatic voice to musical stage works that influenced every composer after him. Much like the movies centuries later, this new entertainment exploded in popularity.

With its dissonances and fluid key changes, sometimes within phrases, Monteverdi's expressive melodies sound awfully novel even today, perfectly conveying the multifaceted characters' inner turmoil and constantly shifting emotions. G.F. Busenello's libretto is mighty trendy, too, with its psychological aptness and adult sexiness. The Carnival-saturated Venetians weren't shocked by the frank eroticism of these ancient Romans with their dangerous liaisons -- they lapped it up. Monteverdi's pagans outclass any underfed modern gals from Desperate Housewives. No wonder opera boomed.

We still don't know exactly how Poppea sounded. Of this seminal work, only two incomplete copies of a rehearsal score and Busenello's complete libretto remain. Who sang what part can only be estimated by the range of the single vocal line, and it's anybody's guess what instruments would have been heard from the pit; musicologists continue to debate how authentic-sounding any Baroque opera can be, even when superbly played on period instruments, as the HGO Orchestra does under early-music maestro William Lacey. Listen for the solemn theorbo (you can't miss it, the double-necked instrument looks like a lute on steroids), the rich viola da gamba, the tiny trumpets that resound during Poppea's coronation at the opera's finale and, of course, those ubiquitous harpsichords, which dazzle with Monteverdi's infinite variety during the many recitative sections. Don't look for the chorus, though. The Venetians liked noisy crowds, but not on stage, and certainly not singing, until much later. Castrati would have run rampant in the Baroque theater, playing the roles of Nero and adulterous husband Ottone, but HGO's version eschews countertenors for an audience-friendly approach where the virile roles sound that way.

HGO's publicity department speaks the truth: This is a "dream team" of singing actors; top to bottom, the best-cast production in recent memory. The aforementioned Burden (Nero), baritone Nathan Gunn (Ottone), mezzo Susan Graham (Poppea), mezzo Frederica von Stade (Ottavia), bass Raymond Aceto (Seneca), soprano Heidi Stober (Drusilla) and tenor Norman Reinhardt (Nero's gay tryst, Lucano) lushly glide through Monteverdi's lilting but demanding vocal line like gondolas across the Grand Canal. With absolute polish and emotional truth, the early Baroque curlicues and wafting melodies of Monteverdi sound fresh and new. Are you listening, contemporary opera composers?

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