July 16, 2024

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‘The Comet / Poppea’ review: Yuval Sharon opera is exceptional

5 min read

Now we know not to call “The Comet / Poppea” a mashup.

That was the obvious expectation before Friday night’s premiere of Yuval Sharon’s latest operatic experiment with his company, the Industry. Sharon simultaneously pits a lasciviously immoral Venetian opera from 1643 with a new opera based on W.E.B. Du Bois’ dystopian, proto-Afrofuturist short story from 1920.

On one half of a revolving stage at Geffen Contemporary at MOCA is an adaptation of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea.” One of the earliest operas in the repertory, it remains one of the most luxuriantly sexy — an arresting purveyor of the pleasure of iniquity. The dazzling set is a gleaming white Baroque fantasyland.

On the other half is a 1920s New York restaurant filled with corpses. A comet has hit the city and the only survivors are Jim, a working class Black man, and Julia, a white socialite.

The score is by George Lewis, who began as a jazz trombonist at the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Music to become one of America’s most impressively progressive and protean composers and scholars. The poetically soaring libretto is by Douglas Kearney.

The ever-creaking set slowly turns, turns, turns. One minute, you see Nero up to his nefarious business, exiling his wife and removing or killing any who would stand in the way of him marrying his lover, Poppea. The next minute, Jim and Julia, from different worlds, are painfully coming to terms with what it means to seemingly be humanity’s only hope. Their profound attraction is procreative, searing beyond love and sex. Nero and Poppea reveal the essence of immorality. Jim and Julia are embodiments of morality.

“Comet / Poppea” doesn’t ask anything unreasonable from the individual operas, which remain autonomous. The greatly trimmed “Poppea” is allowed its major arias and duets to excel in moments of exalted lust and alarming heartbreak. “Comet” delves deeply into the psyche of racism. But as the stage turns, we may see Nero when we hear Jim, as the music from one opera bleeds into the other. We are never on solid ground.

Mashups in music are as old as music itself. In Monteverdi’s day and before, mashups were known as quodlibets or, maybe, ensaladas: folk tunes and chants curiously combined to produce something new and different.

Anthony Roth Costanzo and Nardus Williams superbly portray Nero and Poppea in Yuval Sharon’s opera “The Comet / Poppea.”

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

But “Comet / Poppea” is much more than that. It’s an experimental dialogue with history in a way that only opera, with its capacity to worm its way inside the minds of characters, might attempt. What is revealed here is that there are two sides to everything. Figures on opposite sides of history and society, who speak different languages and make different music, who abuse power or seek justice; oppressors and the oppressed are all in a way prisoners, all driven by a need for love and acceptance.

Even the experience of “Comet / Poppea” is two-sided. There is east and west seating. You hear the same thing but see the opposite, depending on what side of the revolving stage you are on. To attend the production twice is yet another musical and emotional revelation.

With a series of performances through Sunday, there are multiple casts. For most of the shows (and in the two I saw over the weekend), countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang Nero and bass-baritone Davóne Tines sang Jim. Both are members of the experimental American Modern Opera Company, which collaborated with the Industry on the project, and both are among the most persuasive singing actors in American opera today.

Though like-minded in their efforts to expand opera into contemporary life, they are unalike physically and vocally. Costanzo comes from the tradition of Baroque opera and excels in Nero’s glorifying excesses. Tines specializes in contemporary opera, and his bluesy opening aria is about how, as a Black man, he wouldn’t have, just yesterday, been served in the restaurant where he and Julia find themselves. Yet these gripping, spectacular singers became alter egos, seeming to take cues from each other from their different sides of the stage and different worlds and beings.

They are not alone. Kiera Duffy affectingly portrays Julia’s eye-opening understanding of how the other half lives. Nardus Williams’ gloriously pompous Poppea, herself a kind of conniving socialite, becomes, in dialogue with Julia, oddly sympathetic (historically, Nero killed her too). There are powerful performances from James Hayden as the stoic philosopher Seneca, who runs afoul of Nero, and from Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Ottone. Whitney Morrison is heartrending in exiled Ottavia’s aria bidding farewell to Rome.

Jim and Julia turn out not to be a new Adam and Eve who might repopulate society. Only New York was destroyed by the comet. Both Jim’s wife and Julia’s father and fiancé happened to be out of town. With a quick change of costume, Costanzo, as Julia‘s wealthy father, moves over to her side of the stage and confronts Jim. We cannot escape history as worlds apart begin to come together.

“Poppea” ends with a miraculous, unashamedly erotic duet between Nero and his newly crowned wife. The prologue to the opera had been an argument among the gods of Fortune, Virtue and Love. Virtue proves to be the big loser.

Lindsay Patterson Abdou cries as Nellie and Davóne Tines, as Jim, holds his baby in "The Comet / Poppea."

Lindsay Patterson Abdou as Nellie and Davóne Tines as Jim duet in an extraordinary moment of operatic goosebumps.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In the meantime, Jim, reunited with wife Nellie (sung with deep emotion by Joelle Lamarre and Lindsay Patterson Abdou in the two performances I heard) join, into the duet. The music is the same but the meaning is not. Jim holds his dead baby, who did not survive the comet. It is an extraordinary moment of operatic goosebumps.

If what the world needs is love, “Comet / Poppea” proposes that love needs dialogue on more levels than anything else on stage right now. All aspects of the production and performance are exceptional. That includes the superb chamber ensemble, conducted by Marc Lowenstein, that operates in music old and new.

What Monteverdi perhaps needs is a little Lewis. His remarkable score has elements of experimental music that flows not along with “Poppea” but through Monteverdi, transforming all it encounters.

And what American opera needs most of all is “The Comet / Poppea.” It has huge ramifications for the wide world we now occupy, what with growing arsenals of potential Neros and nukes. Unlike other Industry productions, this one will have a necessary afterlife. Over the next two years, it will travel to New York, the Curtis Institute of Music and Yale University.

‘The Comet / Poppea’

When: Through June 23
Where: The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. 152 N. Central Ave., L.A.
Running time: 75 minutes (with no intermission)
Tickets: $25 and up
Info: (213) 626-6222, moca.org

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