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OPERA REVIEW : Monteverdi Cycle Ends in Long Beach


Claudio Monteverdi probably never intended his operas, "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" (1642), "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" (1640) and "Orfeo" (1607) as a trilogy, but at Long Beach Opera, over the past decade, that is what they seem accidentally to have become.

Calling its productions of these seminal works a cycle, Michael Milesnki & Co. completed the set Sunday afternoon at the Long Beach Convention Center. Or rather, Christopher Alden, the sometime theatrical iconoclast who staged "Poppea" here in 1984 and "Ulysses" four years later, brought his ten-year project to a close.

Monteverdi's ideal of theatrically integrated drama-through-music seems, now that this decade is ending, to bring out the best in Alden's imagination, while the director continues to illuminate the composer's creativity.

Historical realities aside, they are a pair, and, like other genius-types, they are not predictable.

This tight, intermissionless production of the five-act, 368-year old opera, reportedly uncut at 88 minutes in length, can be labeled fantasy-like, but not surreal; it commits no startling updatings--other than making the choral ensemble into standins for the original Florentine Camerata--and contains precious little mishugas. And its effectiveness cannot be doubted.


With its massive, Wielandesque white-disc and white-wall set, designed by Peter Harrison, dominating the large playing area in the middle of 800-seat Center Theater, this "Orpheus"--it is sung in English, as the composer would want--possesses a sense of serious airiness that is entirely appropriate to Monteverdi's compact but emotion-rich score.

Costumes, the handiwork of Eugenie Krager, create comparable visual overtones. For one brief example, making Proserpina--excuse me, Persephone--into an instant sexpot by giving her red, stiletto heels was a brilliant touch. Causing Pluto practically to devour those heels, doing an entire, solo, shoe-fetish ballet at one point, extended the brilliance.

Alas, the cleverly conceived but minimal lighting, designed, with some resourcefulness, by Heather Carson, made one suspect that the budget ran out when this item was reached.

Conducted with authority and gusto by Steven Sloane, music director of Long Beach Opera, the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra played with fervent stylishness. Members of the continuo were Roderick Shaw, Lucinda Carver, James Tyler, Stuart Fox and Jennifer Sayre. The exposed and excellent trumpet/cornetto players were James Stehn and Stephen Coyne.

These performances--scheduled for repeats Wednesday and Saturday, both at 8 p.m.--are dominated, as are any "Orfeo" performances, by the singer impersonating Orfeo himself.

LeRoy Villanueva, who is scheduled to create the title role in Philip Glass' "Orphee"in Boston next season, occupies Monteverdi's Orpheus with musical elegance, passionate intensity and an uncomplicated but deeply plumbed characterization. The American baritone's singing emerges effortless, his acting heartfelt and projected.

Taking all six of the female roles, Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant gave each assignment full value, and a corresponding distinctiveness.

No complex costume-changes available, she accomplished the deed with vocal acting and individual character-drawing. In all guises, she excelled. The voice is rich and full or pointed and slender, as required. Hellekant also moves with the simplicity and directness of a dancer; here, she used all her kinetic resources to maximum effect.

Philip Skinner brought faceted acting and an imposing presence to the roles of Charon and Pluto; his voice, rich in the middle, weaker at the bottom, carried nicely in the small hall. On short notice, Allen Crawley performed the part of Apollo, bravely.

Seated or standing around one curve of the giant stage-disc, the 14 assisting singers upheld a high performance standard. Many of their words--in Stephen Wadsworth's sometimes poetic, sometimes vernacular, always clarified English translation--came across easily. More important, their movements and gestures kept the drama in motion.

Among others, they were: Agnieszka Lejman, Steven Dunham, Daniel Ebbers, Richard Bernstein and Louisa Parks.

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