Opera. An art form that brings up an immediate, visceral reaction (good and bad) in many people. As a millennial who always used to shudder at the word and always dreaded that point in my college music program when “the opera” was coming up – since we instrumentalists were typically conscripted to participate – I can honestly say that I haven’t always had the healthiest relationship with the genre. However, I wanted to give this one a chance because I enjoy Baroque music, I was interested in the story, and on some level, I thought it would be good for me, like choking down raw broccoli.

I am so grateful that I did, because it was not only phenomenally done, but delightfully entertaining! UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Music and UNC Opera opened L’incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi on Saturday night; a satirized telling of Roman Emperor Nero and his love interest Poppea, who is vying for Empress and wants to replace Nero’s wife Octavia. Based on history, Busenello’s libretto is wild, telling a convoluted story of love; sex; betrayal; the moral struggles of choosing between honor, fate, and love; and, of course, cross-dressing to prevent being caught trying to murder an ex, because, opera. If you aren’t familiar with the story, I recommend giving the synopsis a read because it is everything a rich Venetian could have wanted for entertainment. In his pre-show talk, Ph.D. candidate Michael Carlson contextualized the show, describing how opera at the time of Monteverdi (1567-1643) had just recently transformed to cater to a paying public audience in Venice, which necessitated lots of relatable content, lavish and intricate sets and costumes, and intrigue. UNC Opera certainly delivered all of this and more!

The stage, draped in elegant red faux-silk to match the musicians’ coats, was set with glowing candles, scattered rose petals, and elegant Roman paintings projected behind the action, where the supertitles would be. Supertitles, an essential element of opera to modern listeners, can often be distracting, but Carson Gardner and Li Han’s design only served to further enhance the atmosphere. I cannot compliment the designers of the visual elements enough on all their brilliant choices! Stage director and designer Marc Callahan, with wardrobe designers Brady Leger, Sabeeka Malick, and Imani Oluoch (who modeled the lavish costuming in her portrayal of gold-clad Fortune in Saturday evening’s show) were able to transport us to ancient Rome, delivering a lavish atmosphere that underscored both melodrama and satire.

I will be using English name translations in this review, rather than the Italian character titles (e.g. Nerone is Nero, Ottone is Otho, etc.).

Oluoch’s Fortune, joined by Sanya Shah (Virtue) and Abigale Hawkins (Love), were constantly flanking the other characters, seemingly directing and influencing their choices in fantastic personification of their respective deity-figures. While Fortune wore a golden headdress and sparkling golden accents all over, Virtue was dressed humbly in conservative gray robes. Meanwhile, Love and Pallade/Venere, played by Caroline Mays, were beautifully and menacingly arrayed in shining black feathers.

The all-female casting worked surprisingly well with this opera; Nero, traditionally played by a soprano castrato, was replaced by Julia Holoman, whose strong soprano voice delivered the rich, arrogant forcefulness of a narcissistic emperor. Kennedy Miller‘s Poppaea was seductive and dramatic, capturing perfectly the character’s unquenchable ambition and persuasive sexuality. Holoman and Miller’s final duet was particularly chilling, toeing the line between romantic and foreboding, as Nero begins to more and more violently grab for Poppaea. Callahan explained during the pre-show talk that Nero, during a violent temper tantrum, kicked Poppaea when she was pregnant, and her subsequent miscarriage is thought to have led to her later death. The foreshadowing was not lost, and Lighting Designer Jesse Moorefield deserves applause for the conflicting uses of warm, white light against stark red shading at the abrupt tonal changes throughout the show.

Supporting characters were no less compelling, and the interchange between different sets of characters as they were paired up for various duets was excellent. Nuria Shin as Octavia was particularly enchanting, performing heart-wrenching, soaring lines that ranged from self-pitying to absolutely incensed. Lauren Ragsdale as Arnalta, Laney Dowell as Valletto, and Jordan Taylor as Damigella, were not only hilarious performers but talented singers that were imperative in driving plot, and Mackenzie Smith’s Seneca was strong and persuasive – though not persuasive enough to keep Nero from ordering Seneca killed. I love that basically the only voice of reason in the entire show is portrayed as a villain (typically sung by a bass voice, but beautifully delivered by a contralto here).

Otho and Drusilla (Isabella Kosempa and Lena Kantz in this production), are great tragic heroes – acting the villains by conspiring in an attempt to kill Poppaea, but ultimately failing, being exiled, and seemingly getting to go live happily ever after with each other. Kosempa deftly switched between lovelorn over Poppaea, manipulative of Drusilla, and sorrowful when Octavia orders Otho to kill Poppaea, a wonderfully imperfect character that is tons of fun to follow.

Not only is L’incoronazione di Poppea hilarious and beautiful, full of both clever and emotive moments, but gorgeously scored – and the orchestra did a fantastic job of doing this work justice. Cellist and director Brent Wissick led the ensemble, chamber-style, as practically a character of its own that flanked the action onstage. The interpretation of the music was respectful to the Baroque style, but absolutely charming and emotive, without sacrificing heart for historically-informed adaptation. That was generally the theme of the whole production, and a huge kudos to everyone involved.

Sunday’s matinee show will replace or rotate several cast members (the roles of Fortune, Virtue, Seneca, and Drusilla), but the chemistry of this entire team is palpable, and this production is truly a gift.

See our sidebar for details on the 11/14 matinee performance.