Sex, Lies and Countertenors

Those who prefer Shakespeare and Greek tragedy to the melodrama of the opera house might find reason to tiptoe into Houston Grand Opera's new period production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea. The first opera based on a historical incident, Poppea re-creates Roman emperor Nero's devilish spurning of his wife, Ottavia, for the tantalizing and ambitious Poppea.

In its first production of Poppea since 1977, HGO uses the Wortham's intimate Cullen Theater to emulate a candlelit ballroom stage inside a Venetian palace. During the performance, houselights are barely dimmed. Male singers sing soprano. Supernatural beings pronounce judgments on fickle humans while resting in elaborately painted contraptions suspended from the ceiling. A 13-piece baroque orchestra plays spare, string-rich harmonies on oversized lutes, violas and other oddly shaped early instruments.

Some might find males with high-pitched voices a little amusing, but this show, with its unparalleled simplicity and stagecraft, offers a rare peek into the beginnings of opera. Making use of theatrical trappings from the mid-17th century, when opera was still fairly new to the Venetian public, HGO's co-production features costumes and choreography by Toronto's Opera Atelier. Marshall Pynkoski directs, while David Fallis, a specialist in the baroque idiom, conducts the HGO Orchestra.

What this tale lacks in plot twists it makes up for in genuinely charged emotion among a vile cast of high-born Romans. G.F. Busenello's libretto recalls the events of a single day in 65 A.D., all of which can be traced back to Poppea's pledge of love to the not-so-happily-married Nero (male soprano Michael Maniaci). Nero's wife, Ottavia (former HGO Studio member mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek), and Ottone (Canadian countertenor Matthew White), who is betrothed to Poppea (Canadian soprano Meredith Hall), discover the betrayal and wail at their fate. When Ottavia demands that Ottone murder Poppea, the poor chap seeks the help of Drusilla (soprano Peggy Kriha Dye), a noblewoman who has designs on him. Drusilla gives Ottone her robe as a disguise to do the nasty deed. But when nosy Cupid catches him in the act, the god of love foils the plot and exposes it to the emperor. Nero banishes the couple, divorces his wife and hands the crown to Poppea.

As the gorgeous, wily Poppea, Hall leaves little doubt about what the deranged emperor must have seen in her. Never possessive or overbearing, Hall's Poppea has a florid, impressive breath, deftly alternating between firm beckoning tones when parting from her lover to subtle duplicity when encouraging him to dispose of Ottavia. By contrast, in the role of the rejected Ottavia, Novacek curses her fate in desperate, angry tones that culminate in a torrent of emotion during her final aria.

As Poppea's scorned lover, Ottone, White warbles with versatility and pristine clarity. While it's clear that early opera inherited the ancient church tradition of using high-pitched male voices for major roles, this particular example takes some getting used to, especially with Nero's character. Instead of projecting the image of an emperor who's seriously evil, as history teaches, Maniaci comes across as a thinly drawn tyrant with more bluster than cruelty. Though Maniaci's soprano has breathtaking moments, his take on Nero isn't fearsome enough.

Bass singer Oren Gradus, an HGO Studio artist, solidly portrays the philosopher Seneca; Dye is likewise impressive as Drusilla, particularly when she's wooing Ottone. Playing the comic foil, Canadian tenor Gerald Isaac nicely hams up the part of Ottavia's nurse, but starts sounding predictable by the third act. Young singer Katie Dugat is less successful in the role of a male Cupid. During several playful moments, she sounds whiny and callow.

Dora Rust-d'Eye's eye-pleasing costumes present a clever 17th-century notion of how Romans probably dressed. Equally sumptuous are designer Kevin Fraser's footlights at the front edge of the stage, substituting for candles that would have illuminated the stage in the 1640s, when the opera premiered in Venice.

Under Opera Atelier music director Fallis, the chamber orchestra offers exotic, somewhat improvised renderings on baroque string instruments -- all while the musicians sit at eye level with the first row. At a time when opera presenters look to big blockbuster productions to attract audiences, HGO's Poppea turns back time with a painstaking, refreshing use of authentic detail.

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Cynthia Greenwood