Pictured 'Poppea' music director Jane Glover and a drawing from the production. BELOW: the Nero set.
Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Librettist: Giovanni Francesco Busenello
Chicago Opera Theater's production of 'L'incoronazione di Poppea' ('The Coronation of Poppea') plays five performances between Feb. 18 and Feb. 28 at the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive. Tickets are $30-$97; (312) 704-8414 or online at www.chicagooperatheater.org or www.madtchi.com .
Chicago Opera Theater is taking a huge gamble. This week, the 30-year-old opera company makes its long-awaited move from the 960-seat Athenaeum Theatre to the new 1,470-seat Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park.
The move to the new theater brings a higher rental fee, plus COT now has to sell more than 7,500 extra tickets this season. Adding to the risk is COT's artistic mission of performing lesser-known operas mainly drawn from the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries. COT's roster of works this season by Monteverdi, Britten and Rossini could be a hard sell for Chicago operagoers who typically subsist on 19th century bread-and-butter operas by Verdi, Puccini and Wagner.
So with so much at stake financially, it's only fitting that the world's most famous gambling playground is evoked in COT's inaugural Harris Theater production. That's right, the wicked Roman emperor Nero in Monteverdi's 1643 opera 'L'incoronazione di Poppea' ('The Coronation of Poppea') is living it up amid the gaudy neon and gaming tables of Las Vegas.
'What I was interested in doing was creating a world on stage that would be that environment of corruption and greed and decadence and sexual passion,' said 'Poppea' director Diane Paulus at a Michigan Avenue café before a recent rehearsal. Paulus said updating the opera was a way for her 'to make the piece feel as alive as it was when it was first done.'
But won't historians grumble at seeing Nero cast aside his wife, Octavia, for his mistress, Poppea, clothed in Armani and Prada instead of a toga and sandals?
'Poppea' music director Jane Glover chimed in by stressing that the notion of 'historical period presentation' is a fairly recent one for opera.
'When it was first done in Monteverdi's time, they wouldn't have had togas on. They would have had baroque costumes and it all would have been very contemporary,' Glover said. 'It's very much a holding up of the mirror to the original Venetian audience to say that this is actually all about you—here's one decadent empire to reflect another.'
Theatrically updating opera masterpieces at COT is nothing new to Paulus and Glover. Both memorably placed Mozart's mixed-up lovers of 'Cosi Fan Tutte' in a swank singles bar in 2002. They also dressed the wedding guests of 'Orfeo' in modern evening wear in 2000 and 2002 for the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Monteverdi Festival. Last season, Paulus and Glover's approach to Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' was fairly traditional, but the production still had distinct visual touches like a lily-strewn stage and a pond inside a piano.
Las Vegas theme park casinos may be the inspiration for COT's 'Poppea,' but don't expect to find Nero or Poppea strolling along site-specific locations like the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace or the Venetian's chlorine-clean canals.
'It's not literally Las Vegas but its definitely inspired by that world,' said 'Poppea' set designer Robert Brill. Best known for his environmental Kit Kat Klub design for the hit 1998 Broadway revival of 'Cabaret,' Brill called modern-day the highly theatrical world of Las Vegas to be a great stand-in for ancient Rome because it 'offers us the ability to show how a single person can be a ruler of an entire empire and earn fame and fortune in an instant.'
While Brill's sleek Vegas settings and David Woolard's glitzy costumes aim to give COT's 'Poppea' a decidedly contemporary look, its musical make-up strives to be as traditional as possible.
Although two of the opera's characters are tangentially doomed when one (Ottone) dresses up in drag to disguise himself as Poppea's murderer, Glover proudly boasts that this production's cast features no cross-dressing.
'All the men are played by men and all the women are played by women,' Glover said. 'Even the boy [symbolizing love] is played by a boy.'
Glover and Paulus point out that this isn't always the case with modern productions of baroque operas. Typically mezzo-soprano women take on male roles originally written for the vocal range of superstar castrati (men who were surgically altered as boys to retain their high soprano voices).
But Glover says the rise in world-renown countertenors (male sopranos) in the past 30 to 40 years has made opera casting much more believable and has been one of the major factors for the rediscovery of baroque opera.
'I think it also has something to do with the original instrument revival,' said Glover, who also serves as music director to Chicago's Music of the Baroque. Glover likens the growing popularity of employing countertenors and period instrumentation to perform baroque music to the restoration of historic canvases.
'It sort of cleaned the painting up in a way, taking away the years of grime,' Glover said. 'The painting is the same, but you see it in a different way, probably closer to the way the painter painted it.'
Although COT is breaking in a bigger, more expensive and acoustically unknown opera space with 'Poppea,' general director Brian Dickie feels the odds are in the company's favor to have a successful run at the Harris Theater.
'I think the move has helped massively,' Dickie said, noting how COT season subscriptions have grown nearly 40 percent from 1,700 last year to more than 2,350 this year.
Regarding COT's 'Poppea,' Dickie boasted, 'We have a terrific cast of young performers from the Chicago area and around the world. Diane and Jane have done us proud over the past few years and I fully expect their 'Poppea' to be a success up there with the rest.'