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USM Singers Excel in “Coronation of Poppea”

“The Coronation of Poppea”
USM School of Music
Corthell Hall, Gorham Campus
April 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, “The Coronation of Poppea,” (1643) seems strangely relevant today—a dissolute court indulging in trivial, illicit affairs while Rome burns, a pre-eminent poet and philosopher “half in love with easeful death,” and an amoral, petulant child in charge of an empire. “So, Marcus, what else is new?”

Sunday afternoon’s production of the opera, by Ellen Chickering, with the entire cast, save one, undergraduate students at the USM School of Music, was remarkable. It was accompanied by Tina Davis, harpsichord and Scott Wheately, ritornello, who admirably filled the role of the baroque instruments indicated by the composer.

The plot involves the seduction of the Emperor Nero by Poppea, circa 100 AD, and her coronation after the disposal of Nero’s former wife, Ottavia. The thesis, stated in the prologue, is the triumph of the god, or goddess of love, Amor, over both fortune and virtue.

Nora Cronin, with fake wings and ability at Karate, was excellent as the mischievous Amor, who protects Poppea from an assassin, Ottone, her former lover, sent by Ottavia in a futile attempt to save her marriage. (Amor quickly disarms him of a dagger and threatens to call down the lightening.)

The role of Poppea, sung by Cathryn Mathews, was well matched by Rhiannon Vonder Haar as Nerone, with just enough difference in timbre and pitch to contrast delightfully in their final duet, the most famous of the opera. A good actor as well, she manages to seem ambiguous about the balance between love and ambition, gazing at the golden crown rather than her lover in the finale

Vonder Haar managed to portray the young Nero as a spoiled but sometimes affectionate brat, who turns in an instant against his tutor, Seneca, and has no compunction about setting his wife adrift in a wooden boat. Ottavia was sung with an admixture of sadness, desperation and the viciousness of a cornered rat by Helena Crothers-Villers.

The opera could equally be entitled “The Death of Seneca,” since it comes alive when Seneca, played by bass-baritone Matthew LaBerge, says farewell to his friends and disciples. Their trio—Teremy Garen, Logan MacDonald and Thomas Hanlon—is one of the high points of the opera.

LaBerge has a powerful, deep voice and the ability to hit the lowest of low notes on “for” in “The death I long for.” His pitch was a little off at times in the intricate ornaments Monteverdi loved, which become more difficult the further down the scale one goes. I would like to hear him as the Hermit in “Der Freischutz,” or anything by Mussorgsky.

The secondary roles were also well sung, often stealing the show. Rachel Shukan as Drusilla, Lady-in-Waiting to Ottavia and Ottone’s former lover, was radiant in her joyful aria welcoming Ottone back. As for aiding him in a little murder, no problem.

James Brown, as Amalta, Poppea’s frumpy nurse, was the epitome of practicality, trying to discourage her charge from overly ambitious plans. Their duet, when Poppea sings “Fighting for me, the God of Love,” over Amalta’s cautions, was another high point in the performance.

And one can’t forget Kiersten Curtis, playing the Goddess of Fortune in the prologue and the Goddess of Premonitions, Pallade, who appears to Seneca before his death, looking like Whistler’s “Study in White,” and singing the way one imagines a goddess would.

If I were producing “The Coronation of Poppea” tomorrow, I would try to cut the exposition a little, and would have it sung in Italian. Little of the meaning would be lost and the music would match the phrasing of the language more exactly. The English translation sometimes led to unintentional humor, or maybe it was just the youthful high spirits of the performers. They earned a standing ovation with flowers.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.