Opera Review: THE COMET/POPPEA (MOCA and The Industry at the Geffen Contemporary Museum at MOCA)

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by Shari Barrett on June 16, 2024

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles

What do you do when the world is on fire and you are only one of two people seemingly left alive? How do you learn to survive when your backgrounds pull you apart? Or how does a powerful woman survive the patriarchy of ancient Rome? No, it’s not an episode of The Twilight Zone; it’s Yuval Sharon’s latest revolutionary operatic experience The Comet / Poppea at MOCA which brings together seemingly disparate worlds connected by stories of cultural transformation.

Nardus Williams and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Austin Richey)

The revolutionary presentation six years in the making juxtaposes Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), an Italian opera with libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello from 1643 unfolding among the social divisions of ancient Rome, with the world premiere of composer George Lewis and librettist Douglas Kearney‘s The Comet, based on the 1920 science-fiction short story by sociologist and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, set in 1920s New York City when a Black man and white woman are the only survivors after a comet hits Earth.

Kiera Duffy (Austin Richey)

Presented on a turntable platform divided in two halves with one side icy-blue and the other red-hot by scenic designer by Mimi Lien, the two operas run at the same time, with the stage’s rotation creating a visual and sonic spiral for audiences “inviting associations, dissociations, collisions, and confluences,” per Sharon, while creating an explosion of personal imagination for each audience member, whether seated on the West Side or East Side of the platform. When the orchestra begins performing the scores of both operas simultaneously, with one sung in Italian and the other in English, the platform slowly rotates as the stories unfold. Dual English translations are offered via screens and super titles to assist in understanding the stories and plot lines being presented, which is especially helpful when a new character/voice was added to the scene I could not see at that time.

Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Nardus Williams, and Lindsay Patterson (Austin Richey)

“As the piece goes on, those two works start to leak into each other,” observes Lewis. “Drawing on Du Bois’s own concept of ‘double consciousness,’ the opera is structured around a number of these doublings: points of repetition or intersection that underscore the dialogue between the two works and the relevance of that dialogue today.”

Laurel Irene (Austin Richey)

Yuval Sharon’s reimagining of the world through opera offers a transformational experience for those who think classic opera is “too high brow” for modern audiences. He shares, “Poppea was first performed in Venice in 1643 during a time when opera had just emerged as a distinct art form. It’s salacious and bawdy about the infamous emperor Nero and his mistress, and was among the first successful operas to be written not for the nobility but for the masses. Sort of like today’s reality TV, which is why it pairs so nicely with The Comet. Both pieces explore the nature of and meaning of power – who has it and who doesn’t – in each tumultuous society.”

Eric Jurenas (Austin Richey)

Each opera explores how eternal love proves, quite literally, what goes around, comes around while pulling audiences into not only the glorious music and inventive staging, but also how myths about the ancient gods reflect the trials and tribulations faced in our confusing modern world with dictators believing their way is the only way to survive, or when racism rears its ugly head and tears people apart based solely on the color of their skin. And in its final form after six years in development, The Comet/Poppea offers an examination of duality on multiple levels, both between worlds and individuals.

Cedric Berry (Austin Richey)

Poppea — which feature a rotating cast of performers from Los Angeles and New York — figures into The Comet when Jim (Davóne Tines who also plays Mercury in Poppea), a Black man, enjoys whatever delicious delicacies and fine wine he finds (“I would not have been served here yesterday”) while listening to Poppea on the large standing radio in the Penthouse restaurant where he has taken refuge. But when Julia (Kiera Duffy), a high society white woman who was planning to meet her family there for dinner just as the comet hit, first appears via the elevator looking for answers and shelter. Confused and scared, with both distrustful of the other based on race, Jim decides to go up on the roof and shoot off flares to attract any rescuers below.

Marc Lowenstein and the Orchestra (Austin Richey)

But just as they finally work together and begin to develop a mutually respectful friendship, the elevator opens to reveal Julia’s father in top hat and morning suit (Anthony Roth Costanzo who also portray Nero in Poppea) causing Julia to immediately run to him and forget all about the man who had just vowed to keep her safe. Jim is desolate when she leaves, again feeling not good enough to be loved. But thankfully his flares also bring his wife Nellie (Lindsay Patterson Abdou, who also plays the Goddess of Love in Poppea) and baby to the Penthouse, honoring the healing power of love.

Anthony Roth Costanzo and Nardus Williams (Elon Schoenholz)

On the art deco-flavored Poppea set with the title character portrayed by Nardus Williams, it’s more about the love of power that sets the tale into motion, with Nero visiting his mistress Poppea as a way to relax after leading his army into battle, while Poppea enjoys time with her lover Ottone (Amanda Lynn Bottoms) when Nero is away. When Nero and Poppea reunite and submerge themselves into a Roman bath, they are watched over by Love, Fortune (Whitney Morrison, also plays Ottavia) and Virtue (Amanda Lynn Bottoms, also plays Ottone), the Goddesses who attend to Poppea’s every need. Soon the court philosopher Seneca (James Hayden) arrives to persuade Nero to obey the empire’s laws and stay with his wife, Ottavia. Confrontations lead to decisions based on the love of power, with Nero crowning Poppea as his empress. But at what cost?

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nardus Williams, and Whitney Morrison (Elon Schoenholz)

Magnificently costumed by Oana Botez, with emotionally-invocative lighting designed by John Torres, and effective sound design by Mark Grey — which allows each singer to be heard clearly. Music Director Marc Lowenstein is to be congratulated for a most daunting task of presenting the music of both operas simultaneously, blending their presentation to perfection.

The Comet/Poppea
The Industry
The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 North Central Ave
ends on June 23, 2024
for general admission tickets ($25-$40), visit MOCA

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