Claudio Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea of 1643 is a soap opera without the afternoon commercials. Sordid adultery, attempted murder, banishment – you get the picture. Read all about it here.

This performance, by the ECU Opera Theater, was directed by Daniel Shirley with music direction by John O’Brien; the costume designer was Jeffery Phipps (he is supposed to have a web page but the ECU site was a mess when this review was being written). The Turnage Theater was the special venue for this performance.

Typical of ECU Opera Theater, this performance was professionally staged (except for the inevitable, pointless talking head at the beginning, so essential to any event in eastern North Carolina), lavishly costumed, and in this case rich with excellent period instrumental music by seasoned professionals. There were about forty singers distributed over three performances for the thirty-two roles.

The classic proscenium-type stage of the Turnage was furnished with a minimum number of props, but with the use of a video projector there was a constantly changing array of images on the white backdrop, a very effective way to dress up the stage and set the mood. There were architectural scenes, details from Renaissance paintings, effective line drawings, and the stark poignancy of a tree, barren of leaves, silhouetted against the sky. Drunkenness was portrayed using brand name bottles, apparently full of water, but there was a very recognizable Bombay Sapphire bottle ‒ who knows what it contained. (Finding empty bottles was not hard to do in a student town, for sure.) With what appears to have been a Powerpoint presentation, it would have been only slightly more difficult to add a floating libretto; this would have been greatly appreciated.

Similarly, the playbill was dismissive in its treatment of the libretto (although in a darkened house it was not much missed).

The pit orchestra was two violins, viola, viola da gamba, double bass, two recorders, theorbo (occasionally replaced by baroque guitar), organ, and harpsichord. The nine musicians, under the direction of O’Brien, had a huge amount of music to get through, which they did admirably. They were invariably strong leaders. O’Brien was especially busy, constantly moving between organ and harpsichord as well as directing; both he and masterful gamba player Patricia Halverson did not seem to get a single break in the music. Scott Pauley’s playing of the theorbo and what I’m guessing was a chittara alla spagnola was rich and supportive at all times.

Further high praise goes to the singers, all fresh young voices, largely quite clear and devoid of the yelling and screeching that some think characterizes opera. The clear diction was particularly nice, making it easy to follow the bombastic story line, even when mired down under twentieth-century realizations of the extremely florid seventeenth-century Italian. The singers had obviously done a huge amount of prep work in learning the lines as well as the music. I did not catch a single musical stumble, missed cue, or similar mishap.

The ECU Opera Theater is a strong and rich company; this was a rich, brilliant, musical performance. Three cheers! Bravi, bravi, bravi!

This opera repeats Saturday, March 30. See our sidebar for details.