A Stunning Start to University Opera’s Season

“Coronation of Poppea” truly a crowning achievement


I’ve developed the deplorable habit of opening my review blogs with a whining apology for being so untimely in my posting, but in the case of University Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (“The Coronation of Poppea”), I needed more time to digest it than it took to deal with the family Thanksgiving feast.

Ok, I’m still late; I expected to get this written by the end of November. I saw the last of the three performances on November 20, and a full week later the experience was still very much with me. Uncharacteristically I took 8 pages of notes (and that was only through early in Act II!), and even in recent days my thoughts return to this opera.

Perhaps part of my unexpectedly strong response is because this was not something I particularly looked forward to; I confess an embarrassing lack of knowledge of Baroque opera in general and Monteverdi specifically. My initial interest in seeing “Poppea” is due in part from finally beginning to listen to (and LOVE) Monteverdi’s sacred vocal works. I even ran into David Ronis, director of University Opera, at the opening of Madison Opera’s season at the beginning of November, and tongue-in-cheek asked him to “sell” me on why I shouldn’t miss “Poppea.” In truth, I already had penciled in the last of their performances, but honestly I had no idea what was coming.

Just some quick context of the story, as its unique dynamic plays such an important part in the opera’s power. This is the time of Emperor Nero first century Rome. He is married to Ottavia, but having a torrid affair with Poppea. She is married to Ottone, a loyal soldier and husband, but her burning ambition to rise to power alongside Nero is all-consuming. In the course of events, Nero orders his mentor, the great philosopher Seneca, to commit suicide, and then has plans to banish Ottavia, and dispose of Ottone one way or another. Ottavia eventually recruits Ottone to kill Nero, with the help of Drusilla (who has long pined for Ottone). In the end, Seneca does Nero’s bidding, the murder plot is foiled, Ottavia divorced and sent into exile, and Ottone and Drusilla somehow spared but banished nonetheless.

Attending the Tuesday performance I was seeing the opening night cast (four roles were double cast and they sang the Sunday matinee). The principals were not only strong vocally, but the overall theatrical experience was nothing short of compelling. For this of course we must give pride of place in a long list of kudos to director David Ronis. He quickly made his mark at University Opera when he arrived a few years ago, but if he keeps up this kind of work, we’ll be lucky if we don’t lose him to a major music program. What he has done in both raising the bar for these students in terms of tackling something of this nature, and then eliciting stagecraft at this level borders on the breathtaking.

With advance apologies to those singers not named specifically, here are the major highlights. Poppea was brought to sensuous life and with mostly alluring vocalism by Talia Engstrom. Nerone (Nero) was Thomas Aláan—and the fact that I was surprised he was a countertenor when he sang his first notes reveal how little homework I had done in advance. His voice is incredibly powerful, and he was able to color it both menacing and seductive.

Cayla Rosche was Ottavia, who had intense confrontations with both Nero and Ottone. The latter was brought to life by Kevin Green; in his first scene his reaction to Poppea’s infidelity felt a touch weak, but his portrayal grew in stature and poignancy as the work unfolded.

In some ways the most astounding vocal discovery of the night was the Seneca of Benjamin Galvin. He possesses a baritone/bass instrument of easy power and real sensitivity. The fact that he is only a sophomore makes both his vocal maturity all the more impressive—and exciting that we should get several more chances to hear him here.

The accompanying ensemble consisted of sixteen players conducted by Chad Hutchinson, but with the nature of the early Baroque instruments, credit must also be given to Jeanne Swack (director of the Mead Witter School of Music Collegium, and also played recorder) and Christa Patton, Baroque harpist and billed as Baroque Style Specialist. The most important decision was to place the group to the left of the stage on the Music Hall floor, not in the pit.

The most striking memory of the substantial first act occurred when Nero visits Poppea in her boudoir for the second time. There was a stretch of several minutes where it seemed that not only was Hutchinson not “conducting,” but that Aláan and Engstrom were oblivious that anything existed other than their singing. The union of instruments and voices, the whole throbbing with drama, is quite simply the kind of experience that is the goal of opera, for both composer and audience. The fact that we experienced it via a university program is just short of extraordinary.

And so we return to David Ronis; with all we have previously enjoyed during his tenure here, this production of “Poppea” represents a breakthrough moment. His next venture contains another twist, making the event all the more enticing: a co-production with the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It runs February 21-24 at the most inviting Shannon Hall at the Memorial Union. If you haven’t experienced University Opera under Ronis’s stewardship…make it a New Year’s resolution. Mine is to post ALL of my reviews in a timely manner…

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