School of Music performs Italian opera

This past weekend, Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music performed L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), an opera in three acts by Claudio Monteverdi. Conducted by music professor Robert Page, the performances on Thursday and Saturday had a different cast than the Wednesday and Friday performances.

On Thursday night, the audience was seated on the side of the stage so that the entire auditorium was put to full use by stage director Gregory Lehane, professor of drama and music. Act I opens with Fortuna (music and English senior Kelly Rubinsohn) and Virtu (music senior Ashley Burroughs) seated in the balcony, arguing through song about their role in ruling over humanity. The blind Amor (music senior Ashley Batten) enters, then bounds down the auditorium steps to her perch on the scaffold on the side of the stage. Later, Damigella (music junior Jennifer Hermansky) sings from the center of the audience and her character proceeds to watch the action from the seat. The use of the entire space made the opera an energetic and dynamic experience, and by being seated above the stage and most of the action, the viewers felt like they, too, were the Gods of Fortune and Virtue, observing humanity from the heavens.

While the opera took place on a purposefully chaotic stage — streamers hung from the rafters over the audiences’ seats and along the floor — the entire show couldn’t have been more polished. In particular, the scenes between Nerone (music senior Shawn Mlynek) and Poppea (music junior Nicole Thorp) were choreographed to comedic perfection. Twenty minutes into the first act, Nerone and Poppea emerge from under a tarp on the stage, then proceed to flirt with and fondle each other, yet never compromise the music. As Poppea, Thorp’s voice was on display, and its rich qualities matched the distinction of her character as the daughter of the “loveliest woman of the day.”

Other actors held their own under difficult circumstances. The character of Seneca (music and electrical and computer engineering junior Steven Das) sings from a wheelchair, and at certain points must endure the other characters taking his chair and wheeling him ferociously around the stage. Batten, playing Amor, took her character’s blindness to a playful level as she groped through the air during scenes, eventually jumping onto Valetto’s (music junior Ryan Townsend) back while he was singing.

Even those who’d never been to an opera before were enjoying the show. “I’m currently taking Italian and I felt connected to the culture through song,” said senior business major Courtney Thompson. “I also like how they’re using modern costumes.”

The modernity of the production was conveyed not only through the characters’ dress (the soldiers were dressed as modern-day security guards, complete with ear pieces), but also in the lighting and the simplicity of the set. When characters in the audience were not singing, a dim spotlight still illuminated their faces, alluding to the omnipresence of the immortals in the humans’ lives.

Missed the opera? Be sure to check out the upcoming School of Music events: a performance by the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra Friday, Oct. 31 at 8 p.m., Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, and a performance by the Carnegie Mellon Jazz Vocal Ensemble Sunday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Alumni Concert Hall.

Editor’s Note: The article refers to the Thursday and Saturday cast.