Posted by: operatheaterink | June 4, 2012

Review: ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea,’ Opera UCLA, Los Angeles, June 4, 2012

Opera UCLA’s ‘Poppea’: Professional and Stunning

Anush Avetisyan, Daniel Cheng. Photo: David Schneiderman

Anush Avetisyan, Daniel Cheng. Photo: David Schneiderman

SEEN JUNE 2, 2012

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

Who says that student productions aren’t professional or worthy of reviews?

Lots of people do, so they don’t go.

Well, those are the people who are missing out on seeing reasonably-priced productions that are indeed every bit as masterful as some of the shows that hit the big time.

Case in point: Opera UCLA’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” which was performed with a double cast from May 31 to June 3 in Macgowan Hall’s Little Theater.

I have indeed seen “Poppea” performed with more lavish accoutrements in the usual Baroque tradition, but never with more panache and style.

Although the singers, mostly students, were excellent – the star of the show was the stage director, James Darrah, who received an MFA degree from the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, and recently directed productions of Handel’s “Teseo” and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Médée” for the Chicago Opera Theater.

Directors and productions are becoming more-and-more significant in opera these days – many times to the detriment of the singers. I am of the old school and focus much more on voices than sets. But the fact remains that many fine opera singers are not especially gifted actors, although that is changing. In this production, where the fragile economy was a consideration, there was no set. A black backdrop, curtains and draperies were the extent of it. So how could this director be the star of the evening? The answer is very simple: He had a vision, and he used his visual artistry to create movements for the singers that enabled them to produce characters that sparked the audience’s attention. Going beyond that, most directors give singers mundane blocking just to keep them busy at most. Darrah gave the singers movements which were like choreographed dances that made the singer-actors exciting, dramatic or funny. The dances were joined together to create a modernistic overall vision. The show had phrasing. I could see a phrase mark over various blocks of actions, just as if the phrase mark had been written over the notes in a bar of music; and the result was one big umbrella which had a thematic vision under it. The movements had grace. The singers’ bodies formed well-designed patterns as if part of a water ballet. The use of mirrors contributed to the effect.

James Darrah is an innovative director who is respectful of the music and singers, does not try to inflate his own ego at their expense, but directs in the name of artistry and creativity.

That said, Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” was the first opera based on history rather than myth, premiering in 1642 or 1643 in Venice, with the action taking place in Rome in A.D. 62 or 64, depending on the source. Few manuscripts and only a Venice and Naples music score survive, and the extent of Monteverdi’s authorship has been questioned.

With a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, the story is immoral while the music sounds almost spiritual.

Ottone returns from war only to find that his lover, Poppea, is having an affair with the emperor, Nerone, who is married to Ottavia. Seneca advises Ottavia not to seek vengeance and attempts to reason with Nerone, who looses trust in him and sentences him to death. Ottavia asks Ottone to kill Poppea. Drusilla, a lady of the court, gives Ottone her clothes to disguise himself, but Amore (the goddess of Love) saves Poppea’s life. Drusilla is arrested for the attempted murder. Ottone confesses but implicates Ottavia, who is banished into exile as Drusilla and Ottone are punished. In the end, Nerone triumphs, and Poppea flaunts herself for succeeding in becoming the new empress.

Darrah made the spectacle a little bloodier than might be customary — killing off some characters rather than banishing them. He told me at intermission that there were no written stage directions, so he had the freedom to be creative, and so he was.

The UCLA Early Music Ensemble, under the direction of Stephen Stubbs, provided the orchestration which included two violins, a cello, two harpsichords, a baroque harp, a chitarrone, and a baroque guitar.

The mood was set for the multi-talented singers who were able to follow through with Darrah’s directions.

Anush Avetisyan is a Kim Kardashian look-alike with an alluring demeanor and seductive voice: a perfect Poppea. Daniel Cheng’s Nerone was strong and centered in voice and stature. And when the two used drapery to accentuate their emotions, the stage was intense and the audience could feel it. Their final duet could have been more effective, though.

Emily Lezin was a commanding Ottavia. She did justice to her “Addio Roma” lament.

Brian Vu was an athletic Ottone. Blessed with a lush baritonal timbre and robust sound, he was charismatic with a powerful stage presence that was undeniable.

Alene Aroustamian provided the comic relief as Arnalta, attending to Poppea. Darrah’s utilization of pantyhose that just wouldn’t stay up was hilarious. The other comedic standout was Briana Gantsweg who played the trousered Valletto and Virtù.

Jessica Nicolet (Drusilla) was a delight with or without her clothes on, leaning against a proscenium wall to great effect. The entire cast – especially Ryan Thorn (Seneca), Patricia St. Peter (Amore), Phoebe Dinga (Fortuna), Sarah Anderson (Nutrice) and Jeffrey Fichtner (Lucano) – was excellent. There were moments when various singers sang below the notes, however, thus sounding flat so that the melody of the music was lost. This usually happened in moments when a singer was showing emotion or comedic reactions. Although the audience laughed and didn’t notice, vocal delivery should never be compromised due to an emphasis on staging, although staging and acting can cover up poor vocalization. Still, in the university setting, young singers should focus on the voice first, feel secure with it, and then add on the dynamics. However with such great blocking and the opportunity to show off, it is understandable that some of the singers did just that. Daniel Cheng, on the other hand, paid attention to vocal detail while at the same time embracing the stage directions to enhance the emotionality of his character.

The costumes were a cross between modern and classical, were cost-effective and worked. They were modern with a tunic-like-look at times, thus suggestive of the Greeks and Romans. An example was Amore’s white costume in the second act.

Opera UCLA never fails to deliver. I always enjoy the spirit and energy the students exude with their talent. “Bravo” to them and to the dedicated UCLA faculty.

UCLA Early Music Ensemble: Elisabeth Le Guin, director; Lindsey Strand-Polyak, violin; Rhea Fowler, violin II; Phoebe Ping, cello. Guest artists: Ian Pritchard, harpsichord; Maxine Eilander, baroque harp.

Music Director: Stephen Stubbs (Harpsichord, chitarrone, baroque guitar)
Stage Director: James Darrah
Scenic & Prop Design: Kaitlyn Pietras
Costume Design: Raquel Barreto
Lighting Design: John A. Garofalo, Cameron Mock
Director of Opera UCLA: Peter Kazaras
Music Director of the Opera Studio: Rakefet Hak
And many more, including Liana Dillaway, Rob Rudolph, Myung Hee Cho, Daniel Ionazzi, Mona Lands, Michael Dean, Vladimir Chernov, and Juliana Gondek