Smile Politely

“Rules are for servants, reason is not for commanders,” sings Emperor Nero

Last night, I attended a preview of the first opera in Lyric @ Illinois’ season, and I was unsurprisingly impressed. I am, admittedly, an opera fan, and am thrilled that C-U has a venue to spend 3 hours enthralled by people who sing classically. Still, the singing, scenery and subject matter made this show especially helpful at the end of a particularly tough day. 

When I wrote about Poppea, the director and I discussed the relevance of a plot filled with lust and betrayal. When musical director (and author of this adaptation) Julie Gunn took the stage last night to introduce it, she mentioned that no one imagined just how pertinent this opera would be. A crazy emperor rejects sound political advice, orders the giver to death, then divorces his refined Empress and marries an adultress on the same day? Hmmmmm…

Unfotunately for my allegory, the opera ends on a high note, with everyone paired off and dueting lovingly. Still, the journey is a gorgeous one, especially thanks to scenic designer Amber Shi, whose sleek architectural set pieces create visual interest and belong in my house. Yes, even the coronation scenery. I loved seeing the projections of big-city streetscapes as part of Neo-Rome, and they blended very well with the physical sets, creating a good sense of place. At times the spare aesthetic was a little too empty, but in those places the cast members were very good at holding my attention.

The (odd days) cast performed admirably. Beautiful voices were a balm for my heartache, even when singing about their own heartache. The Nerone I saw (Yichen Li) took his countertenor range to incredible heights, as well as entertaining with just a hint of the “crazy eyes” that the role required. Elizabeth Banaszak as Drusilla and Kasey Stewart as Ottavia stood out among the female cast, although Elizabeth Gartman as Valletto nearly stole scenes from the Empress. Maybe because I needed the laughs she was there to provide, but I was partial to both her and William Taylor Duke as Lucano. I have to say, however, that the first act was carried effortlessly by Joseph Trumbo as Seneca, an opinion that was shared by many of the others in the audience, if the curtain call counts as evidence. His bass makes being virtuous sound heavenly. Until, that is, you hear the first note Venere (Landon Webb Westerfield) sings in the last scene. Honestly — tears.

It’s been a rough week. Take some time, make some time to unwind, laugh, and remember that there is beauty in the world. Go see Lyric @ Illinois’ Poppea at the Krannert Center. The opera sung in Italian and English last just under 3 hours (including intermission) and you can purchase tickets online

Related Articles