THE CORONATION OF POPPEA

Published August 22, 2003

Hindus maintain that you should dedicate yourself to your spouse, and then when grey hair starts setting in, you should go up on a mountain and meditate on spiritual matters. For Christians, it has usually been a case of either one or the other, you have to choose between the spirit and the flesh. The Romans opted for the latter, which may have been what brought about their downfall. Perhaps this was what was on Monteverdi´s mind when he wrote The Coronation of Poppea. Or perhaps it was that power corrupts, be it the power that comes with high office, as in the case of Nero, or the power that comes with beauty, as is the case with Poppea.

When first produced 400 years ago, the play was condemned as immoral, and even in these amoral times, the ending comes as something of a shock. Seneca, carrying a large book that says simply “Morale” on the cover is sent to his grave for his constant preaching, and everyone else who stands in the way of the two corrupt lovers is banished or beheaded, leaving them to live happily ever after. Perhaps the morality is that evil always prevails, precisely because of its application of force (see Megas, issue 4), and all the Senecas of the world can’t change that, a moral kept from us in most modern entertainment. For such a moral is dangerous. If we acknowledge that evil can actually triumph, despite all fairytales to the contrary, we might begin to wonder how our leaders actually got to where they are, and start doubting them.

Settings may change, fashions become more revealing and weapons more destructive, but human nature has a habit of remaining the same. Hence, stories first told centuries ago can still be scarily relevant to our time. And it is hard to imagine it being told any better than here, as staged by the Summer Opera. This is its second year, and it seems almost a pity that a production like this only gets 6 performances. One press release says that their aim is to bring the opera to a modern audience without changing the setting. In this they disappoint, if nothing else, as the baroque play set in Roman times features pistols, sneakers and cigars. The timelessness card has been played a bit too often by now to be effective, but here it is pulled off with enough style to almost make you forget this.

But bringing the play to the audience they most certainly succeed in. The opera is performed in Italian, but the audience jolts in their seats as the first line in Icelandic is bellowed out, and this is done often enough so that even those unfamiliar with the story as well as Italian should be able to keep pace, if they can understand Icelandic that is. Still, the harsh, familiar sound of the Viking tongue makes you understand why they opted for the original Italian language, as Björk or no Björk, it probably just sounds better when sung. The humour might be a bit too physical, a bit too Italian for the somewhat more cynical residents of the far north, but it is the drama that gets through.

That, the efforts of the musicians and the wonderful performances of the actors. Not only are they all superb singers, but everyone looks born for their part, whether this is a result of thoroughbred performers or magic in the make up department. The clowns are suitably clownish, the imp impish, Seneca serene, Nero imperious enough if not yet exploded into full corpulence, and Poppea stunning enough to sacrifice an empire for, or a mentor at the very least. Not being able to restrain myself any longer, I rush to the stage, fling the cruel Nero away from her, and ask her a few questions.

“How did you become involved with the Summer Opera?” “A friend of mine saw an ad and so I auditioned for last year´s summer opera, and got the part of Belinda in Dido and Eneas, who was sweet and clownish and not much like Poppea at all. I got on very well with the people, so for this year’s opera I became even more involved, playing a bigger part as well as doing quite a bit of administrative work.”

“Your roles have included Maria in West Side Story, who is an innocent, Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show who starts out innocent, and Poppea who is devilish the whole way through. There seems to be a certain progression. Whom of them do you most resemble?”
“Maria, I would hope, although they all share a sense of passion, as do I.” “Why did you choose to do The Coronation of Poppea?” “It was Hrólfur Sæmundsson (Nero), the head of the opera who made the choice, but I enjoy doing baroque singing. It is technically difficult, yet very expressive.”

“What is the relevance of the piece for today’s audience?” “It’s all about greed. Greed for money, greed for power, greed for love. I think that’s very relevant.” “And so what,” I ask in time honoured tradition, “is next?” “Next I’m playing the part of Barbarina in “The Wedding of Figaro,” and then I’m doing a Cabaret style show. We haven’t decided upon the music yet, but it’ll probably be a 20´s or 30´s theme.” Any leading roles coming up? “If they can find something devilish enough,” chuckles the charming Poppea, whose actual name is Valgerður Guðnadóttir, soprano, single mother and siren.


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