In Mashup, Monteverdi Collides With Modern Opera On A Turntable

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Nero and Nardus Williams as Poppea in The Industry production of ‘The Comet/Poppea‘ (Photos by Elon Schoenholz, MOCA and The Industry)

LOS ANGELES — Opera director-showman Yuval Sharon is back in action with his maverick opera company The Industry. Before their production of Sweet Land, which was grounded by the Covid shutdown in 2020, they had done a number of out-of-the-box projects — Invisible Cities, Hopscotch, War of the Worlds, Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar, John Cage’s Europeras 1 and 2, and Meredith Monk’s ATLAS, the last four in tandem with the ever-adventurous Los Angeles Philharmonic. With each production, the drumbeat of international attention got louder and louder.

Sharon’s latest gambit, The Comet/Poppea, comes at the tail end of what amounts to a tidal wave of California opera productions, most of a new or unusual nature, surrounding Opera America’s Los Angeles conference this month. And while I wouldn’t suggest that any copycatting is going on, it is worth noting that Sharon’s use of stage turntables to squeeze two story lines into one work is not exactly a brand-new idea. I saw this happen in San Francisco Opera’s stunningly powerful production of Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence just two weeks before. The turntable device appeared again on June 14, when The Comet/Poppea received its world premiere in the Geffen Contemporary annex at MOCA.

What Sharon attempted to do was juxtapose Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 exposé of ancient Rome,The Coronation Of Poppea, with George Lewis’ new opera The Comet, which has a Douglas Kearney libretto based on an Afro-futurist short story by W.E.B. Du Bois. By having both works unfold together in real time on a constantly revolving turntable, with Monteverdi’s music occasionally seeping into Lewis’ set and vice-versa, Sharon was trying to find common ground between two occupants of the extreme ends of the operatic timeline. Against all common sense, it found that ground to a certain degree, while making pertinent points about the human condition that sadly haven’t changed in centuries.

Davóne Tines sang the roles of Jim and Mercury.

It helped that the original Poppea has a great original libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello that seems startlingly modern, featuring mortal characters whose lust, greed, and social climbing allow them to triumph over those who value reason and virtue. It also helped that the massive differences in musical style between the 17th and 21st centuries were papered over with virtually identical tempos from start to finish — mainly Adagio molto. Not only that, but the constant clattering noises of the revolving turntable (not unlike a long-in-the-tooth ride at Disneyland) also made their own strangely unifying contribution, almost like a pedal point running through the score. I don’t think that was intended, but it worked in a Cageian, any-sound-can-be-music way that Sharon would probably appreciate.

There were two sets on this revolving platter of a stage: a blindingly white set of steps leading to a hot tub of sorts for the Poppea characters and, for The Comet, an upper-class restaurant in a New York City high-rise building circa 1920 (the date of the Du Bois story). Essentially, in Du Bois’ telling, a comet veers too close to earth and seems to have destroyed all life in the city except for a Black working-class fellow (Jim) and a young, white, upper-class heiress (Julia). (The 1959 film The World, the Flesh, and the Devil with Harry Belafonte has much the same premise, with a nuclear war wiping out all but a Black man and a white woman).

Inevitably, race rears its head as Jim reflects over and over that he would never have been served in this restaurant just the day before. Now and then, a vintage radio pipes in compressed, distorted strains of the Monteverdi opera that a small period-instrument band offstage is playing. Julia enters the posh room, and she and Julia get to know each other and transcend the racial divide. But when they seem to decide that maybe they can start building a new human race themselves, Julia’s father, fiancé, and sister show up, and the old barriers return.

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nardus Williams, and Whitney Morrison in ‘The Comet/Poppea’

The audience was divided into two segments, “east” and “west,” and placed on bleachers on either side of the revolving stage. This meant that no member of the audience could see 100 percent of the stage action of the 87-minute work, although Sharon’s direction, paced about as slowly as the music, minimized the amount of exposure that would have been lost. That tactic was a holdover from past Sharon productions like War of the Worlds and Sweet Land, so you would have to see it multiple times to catch everything.

Now, how about the effect of clashing centuries of music? Lewis’ score for his second opera is mostly modernistic, dissonant, at times shattering, with sharp fizzing, streaking gusts of strings, some apparent electronic contributions, and one brief bit of jazz creeping in. Poppea is elegant, very spare in sound and texture, always tonal. It wasn’t all of Poppea, which by itself lasts well over three hours; more than half of the opera and many of the characters were cut, including probably the most transparently upwardly-mobile character of all, Poppea’s nursemaid Arnalta. So we don’t get to hear her extraordinary aria near the end, bragging to the world that with Poppea as empress, now people will kiss up to Arnalta, and that she won’t have to mix with the common folk anymore.

At first, you are caught in a tangle of sounds that seem planets apart, but soon you get used to the strangeness of it all, underscored by the clatter of the set. At the closing, though, Lewis’ score turns unexpectedly lyrical (based on, the libretto says, some of Arnalta’s missing music), though in line with the resolution of The Comet plot and the inevitable union of Nero and Poppea.

The production is supposed to go on nearly every day — sometimes twice per day — through June 23, with alternating casts. The cast that I saw on June 14 had the estimable advantage of Davóne Tines’ big, resonant baritone as Jim (and Mercury), which sounded even richer in texture in this space under these sonic conditions, and the first-class countertenor of Anthony Roth Costanzo, who sang the roles of Nero and Julia’s father and was also listed as co-producer (along with Cath Brittan).

Stage director Yuval Sharon and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in rehearsal

Bass James Hayden was an imposing and thoughtful Seneca, soprano Nardus Williams sang Poppea, and soprano Kiera Duffy portrayed Julia. There were more doubled and tripled roles — mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Ottone and Virtue, soprano Joelle Lamarre as Love and Jim’s missing wife Nellie (who appears near the end), and soprano Whitney Morrison as Ottavia, Fortune, and “Friend.”

From my vantage point close to the stage, conductor Marc Lowenstein could only be seen through a video monitor deftly and gracefully leading a 10-musician ensemble combining period and modern instruments through this collision of styles. The English supertitles were divided on two separate overhead screens or combined on side monitors, color-coded in white for Poppea and tan for Comet, which made it easier for the audience to figure out who was saying what in which opera.

If this counterintuitive smashing together of idioms aims to attract new audiences, there were signs that it was working, given the presence of more younger people in the sold-out opening-night audience than you normally see in conventional opera houses. Other noted composers who can’t be easily classified — such as Anthony Davis, James Newton, and Andrew Norman — could be spotted at the reception before the performance. Whatever Yuval Sharon comes up with these days, the world takes notice.