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Too weird

Opera McGill chose L’incoronazione di Poppea, I believe, because it requires a large cast. About twenty singers, depending on how much they double, which means a fair swath of current vocal class is happily adding it to their resumes rather than submitting FOA requests about administration salaries.

Montreal was being found and boys with promising voices cried for their testicles when Poppea was first performed, 370 years ago. Because we are not sure who wrote it, we ascribe it to Claudio Monteverdi. Perhaps we don’t know because they were embarrassed.

In Poppea, goddesses 1, 2, and 3 argue about who is the best. Roman 4 is disappointed in love by Poppea 5, who is rather ambitious, and has upgraded to Emperor, Nero 6. Nurses 7 and 8 run about dispensing alternatively reasonable and terrible advice (Empress Octavia 9 has one.) Philosopher Seneca 10 is warned by a god 11 that he might die, 6 orders him to commit suicide, and another god 12 flies over to deliver the message before soldiers 13 and 14 arrive to repeat it. 4 decides to kill 5 if he can’t have her, and then suddenly falls in love with 15. 10 kills himself with his friends 16, 17, and 18. 19 flirts with 20. 6 celebrates the death of 10 with 21. 4 dresses up as 15 to kill 5 but is stopped by 3. Etc. There are, one feels, roles that could be cut.

Of course, regardless of the tedious plotting, high difficulty for young voices, and totally unoriginal production, putting on a complicated work like Poppea was probably a terrific educational experience. And so it should be as the primary concern of the school. But must it involve a live audience? According to the Canadian Medical Association, a textbook staging of Poppea should only occur under supervision. So what happened was technically illegal.

It was trying, and I sometimes see three operas a week. The small ensemble was trapped and muffled in the mini-pit, struggling in the complex parts to track the many singers, all of whom were outmatched by the ornamentation and deadly seriousness of their parts. There were standouts, Camille Holland, Katherine Maysek, Erin Berger, and Geoffrey Penar to my ears (none except Maysek in major roles) but even the best were hamstrung by Poppea’s repetitiveness and so much singing.

It is a pity that no one saw the opportunity. We haven’t lost our taste for symbols and abstraction, only the context has changed. So Poppea, if you’re doing it today, needs help or it’s just too weird. Let’s recast the ruthless and vulgar Nero as Stephen Harper, and in the place of the scorned Octavia and the ambitious Poppea, rival oil company lobbyists, Talisman and Nexxen. Played by men. And don’t shy about cutting the three-hour-long libretto either.

With mature professional singers perhaps the beauty of the music could carry everything else. The recordings suggest so. But a student production can’t. Let’s have more realism in the future!