Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance presents Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea".

Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) opera “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (The Coronation of Poppea), first performed in Venice in the carnival season of 1643, is one of the greatest operas and probably one of the most problematic. Performed once again in Naples in 1651, the opera then fell into oblivion until two scores from the 1650s were rediscovered in 1888 (the original score is lost). Opera as an art form had existed for less than fifty years when the aging, ailing Monteverdi and his influential librettist, lawyer and poet Giovanni Francesco Busenello, staged the morally lax opera built around ambition, political greed, love, jealousy, ruthlessness and the abuse of power. Taking its story from Roman history – the affair between the Roman noblewoman Sabina Poppea and the emperor Nero - it was written at a time of lively, intellectual debate over the relative value of spiritual ideals versus sensual pleasures, the conflict here being between loyalty and lust, with lust triumphing. It is, therefore, not surprising that Busenello, referring to his own concept of the opera as being based on modern taste and not ancient rules, writes a libretto bristling with multiple meanings, irony and tension. Monteverdi, utilizing inflection and affect, the meaning of words and their emotional content, creates real and fallible people; this, his final opera, is a masterpiece, combining the elements of drama, humor, sensuality and heartbreak.

As one of the events of the 2013 Jerusalem Arts Festival, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, with the assistance of the Italian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv) and the Jerusalem Foundation, presented two performances of “L’incoronazione di Poppea”. This writer attended the performance on March 16th at the Gerard Bechar Center (Jerusalem). Dr. David Shemer of the JAMD was musical director and conductor; stage direction and design were in the hands of Moti Averbuch.  Hebrew surtitles were prepared by Averbuch and Ronit Segev. The majority of the singers and instrumentalists were students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

The somewhat austere Leo Model Hall of the Gerard Behar Center is a far cry from the opulence of the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo of Venice (where “L’incoronazione” was premiered), a venue boasting “marvelous scene changes, majestic grand appearances (of performers)…and a magnificent flying machine; you see, as if commonplace, glorious heavens, deities, seas, royal palaces, woods, forests…” as one observer had written. However, in the Leo Model Hall’s favor is its suitable size for a Baroque opera production. Stage props were minimal but flexible in use and costumes were mostly very ornate silk blankets and pillows. The choreography was simple, movement on stage, at times, stilted.  Players of the instrumental ensemble of period Baroque instruments were seated at the left of the stage, with Shemer conducting from the harpsichord. One of the major strengths of the performance was the elegant and stylistically pleasing playing of the ensemble and its delightful mix of timbres. Joining the ensemble as guest artist was harpsichordist Netta Ladar.

“L’incoronazione” calls for many soloists and the JAMD has a fine group of young singers for those roles, some more attuned to the singing of early music than others. Most displayed an adequate to good approach to sung Italian. To mention just a few - Guy Pelc, as Ottone (Poppea’s husband) sang with warm color and conviction; Victoria Slavin (Poppea) came across as sensuous and demonstrative, her lower register not quite matched in strength to her upper range. Tenor Oshri Segev (Nero) has an excellent voice for Baroque music; his vocal sound is fresh, articulate and Italianate and he makes good use of syllables for effect. Shira Agmon, as Nero’s wronged and wronging deserted wife Ottavia, was in character in her portrayal of suffering. Soprano Lily Solomonov was well cast as Valletto, Ottavia’s whimsical page-boy. Sofia Mishayev, playing a lady of court and enjoying comfortable stage presence, was racy as the love-sick Drusilla. In the role of the profoundly wise and heroic philosopher Seneca, representing virtue and the former concept of aesthetics and reason, we heard guest singer bass Joel Sivan in one of the earliest florid parts written for a bass vocalist.  Sivan’s unforced, limpid vocal timbre is well suited to early Baroque opera style; his voice floats as Seneca’s calm demeanor portrays the acceptance of his fate.

An ambitious project involving participants on stage and no fewer “behind the scenes”, the musical side of the production came out on top, with the build-up of drama, visuals and stagecraft not quite impactful or gripping enough.


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