There's no need to update Claudio Monteverdi's last opera, "The Coronation of Poppea." Composed in 1642, it is already astonishingly modern.
It encompasses a familiar world in which soldiers grumble about their duties, philosophers have to kill themselves, underlings seek advantage, rulers disregard the state while pursuing private pleasures, and women ruthlessly use their beauty to advance their positions.
Most of the characters -- and there are more than two dozen of them -- are morally tainted. Most shocking of all, evil isn't defeated. It isn't even seriously challenged. It triumphs as the emperor Nero elevates his paramour to be his consort, and the work daringly ends with one of the most lovely, memorable duets in the operatic canon.
Los Angeles Opera opened the decidedly for-mature-audiences-only "Coronation of Poppea" Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where it runs in repertory with a family-friendly version of Englebert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel."
At four hours, it may be a long haul for some before that final duet, and the work doesn't necessarily have to be as formal and lacking in sensual indulgence as it was here. Nevertheless, with its exceptionally strong cast, this company premiere marked a local milestone.
L.A. Opera borrowed the 1994 production from the Netherlands Opera. Michael Simon's set is austere, geometrical, open, and then in the final act claustrophobic. It extends over the pit except for a V-shaped wedge that accommodates the baker's dozen group of period instruments led by Harry Bicket and also serves for additional exits and entrances of the singers.
The sparse setting is offset by Emi Wada's heavy, textured costumes that clothe the singers from head to bare toe and change to indicate the characters' rise and fall in stature. Why barefoot? Director Pierre Audi told Wada, she said in a Times interview, that "shoes always give away the period." A note for the fashion conscious.
Audi tended to rely on monumental, static positions for the upper-crust characters, except for their semiprivate moments of childish petulance. Nero, in particular, increasingly gave vent to such behavior.
Audi also made plain the homoerotic subtext of Nero's duet with Lucano immediately after Seneca's state-ordered suicide. Busy extolling Poppea's charms, the two quickly embraced, shuddered and finished with a kiss. Whose sweet lips was Nero actually remembering a moment later?
Nero, originally an alto or soprano castrato, was sung powerfully by tenor Kurt Streit, who also brought sexual vulnerability to the imperious role. In her company debut, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang Poppea with dark-toned authority and acted the role with steely self-possession.
Countertenor David Daniels sang Ottone, Poppea's former lover, with sweetness and focus. Frederica von Stade endowed Ottavia, the castoff empress, with a haunted dementia.
Reinhard Hagen was an imposing Seneca. Christopher Gillett made Poppea's Mikado-esque, crossed-dressed nurse Arnalta a hoot. Christine Brandes was a lovely, committed Drusilla, blindly willing to sacrifice her life for Ottone.
Tonna Miller, Stacey Tappan and Hanan Alattar sang the vain goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, respectively, strongly.
Jill Grove made the cameo role of Nutrice, Ottavia's nurse, memorable. As the page Valletto, Keith Jameson was properly hot-blooded. Nicholas Phan was the compliant Lucano. But virtually everyone else in the cast could be cited for individual contribution as well.
Jean Kalman lighted the proceedings dramatically.
Most people are likely to depend more than usual on the supertitles to grasp the progress and nuances of this text-driven opera. These generally served well, except for going out of sync with Arnalta's declarations of her new importance after Poppea is declared empress. But they were completly misleading in translating Ottone's evasive response to Drusilla, "Ti bramo," "I burn for you," as "I love you."
"Poppea" is problematic in that it exists in two surviving manuscripts dating from the 1650s, a "Naples version" and a "Venice version," which generally agree in the music but have unique additions and cuts. Los Angeles Opera used a composite called the King's Music edition by Clifford and Elaine Bartlett, with additional editing by Bicket, who conducted expertly from the harpsichord.
Because both original sources also lack instrumental indications, every modern performance is conjecture. This one seemed more monochromatic than necessary, but it was consistent in portraying a grim, morally void world.
'The Coronation of Poppea'
What: Los Angeles Opera
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, 13 and 16. 2 p.m. Dec. 3 and 10.
Price: $30 to $220
Contact: (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.com