By C.B. Adams

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

– “In Memoriam:27”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

To key off Tennyson’s philosophical proposition, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Awakenings,” at the Loretto-Hilton Center’s Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through June 25, explores a similar notion. If you were a patient trapped for decades by encephalitis lethargica , spending your waking moments in constant stupor and inertia, would you agree to allow a doctor like the neurologist Oliver Sacks to experimentally administer a drug called levodopa, or L Dopa, that could alleviate the disease’s debilitating effects? And, would you consent if you knew the risks – that the effects might not last long and that you would still suffer, like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, from spending decades isolated from the world’s events and your own maturity and development?

Is it better, then, to have been awakened than not at all?

 That’s a powerful philosophical question dreamed up in Sack’s book “Awakenings” that presented a series of fascinating case reports of patients trapped by encephalitis lethargica. It was also dreamed up into the eponymous Hollywood film (starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), a documentary, a ballet and a play by Harold Pinter. Sacks himself dreamed it could even be this opera, a pandemic delayed premiere by OTSL this season. 

Andres Acosta and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

This production draws the audience into the clinical but dreamlike world even before the score begins. The opening set evokes an impersonal, sterile hospital setting as nurses slowly wheel in slumped patients behind a series of moveable glass walls. Though not “pretty,” the harsh, set design by Allen Moyer is visually affecting and well-matched to the opera’s melancholic intensity (including a fantastic use of video projections by Greg Emetaz), especially as illuminated by Christoper Akerlind’s lighting designs.

The “Awakenings” score, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Kalb, is excellent if not exactly memorable. The music weaves around the characters and action without calling attention to itself.

Baritone Jarrett Porter sings Dr. Sacks, and his rich voice is well-matched to the demands of the role as a deeply empathetic caregiver. Porter’s voice is well-matched to  the bass-baritone of  David Pittsinger, who voices Sacks’s naysaying boss, Dr. Podsnap. Pittsinger’s presence and deep voice provide believable authority.

One of the key reasons “Awakenings” shines is the opera’s balancing of multiple “awakenings” by Sacks, who grapples with his sexuality in a subplot, as well as three patients that representing the 20 in real life. They provide more than yeoman’s work as they must sit in wheelchairs – all trembles and contortions – and then transform into walking/talking human beings then return to their un-awakened states.

Susannah Phillips and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Marc Molomot, tenor, plays a middle-aged Leonard, whose aging mother (sung beautifully and dutifully by Katherine Goeldner) has been reading to him every day since he succumbed to his condition. Molomot confidently provides a Leonard who hasn’t emotionally matured since adolescence. He’s a boy in a man’s body, which makes life exciting, challenging and ultimately disturbing. Molomot plays Leonard with aplomb.

One of the highlights of “Awakenings” is Leonard’s duet with Rodriguez, his male nurse, sung by the tenor Andres Acosta. Acosta proves there are no parts too small to stand out.

Another of the trio of patients is Rose, engagingly sung by Susannah Phillips. Rose is an optimistic yet dreamy character, still living in an interrupted past that includes a long-gone love. Phillips’s performance and engaging voice make it easy to start identifying with her fairytale outlook and then mourn as she returns to her former state.

Completing the trio is Miriam H, sung by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Miriam’s story is as unique and ultimately tragic as her cohorts. Like Rose, Miriam’s story moves from silence to astonishment as she discovers that her family considered her dead and that she has a daughter and even granddaughter. Danrich’s performance and beautiful voice elevate the tragedy of her return to silence.

As directed by James Robinson, “Awakenings” is a compelling experience – one that calls to mind Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams:  “…Thinking of a series of dreams / Where the time and the tempo drag, / And there’s no exit in any direction…”

Long after the performances fade, the philosophical and ethical questions posed by “Awakenings” linger. Would have the lives of Mirian, Rose and Leonard (and perhaps even Sacks himself) have been better if they hadn’t been intervened by L Dopa? And who should be allowed to make that choice? One person’s dream may be another’s nightmare.

Jarrett Porter as Dr Oliver Sacks. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

Opera Theatre’s riveting production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea brings to mind
some dubious advice from philosopher-cum-mob boss Tony Soprano, “When you’re
married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce.”

The green grocer in Poppea is none other than the real-life Roman leader Nerone (nee Nero), portrayed with unerring sleaze, swagger and callous Machiavellian machismo by tenor Benton Ryan. At its most reductive, Poppea is a “love” triangle set within a palace drama.  Nerone’s desire to discard his wife, Ottavia, (played with perfect, doomed impotence by Sarah Mesko) into the compost heap sets in motion the story’s drama. But, as the title implies, this isn’t really his story. It belongs to his paramour and hot potato, Poppea, played by the excellent Emily Fons.

Poppea shares much with Carmela Soprano who famously
quipped, “…It’s a multiple choice thing with you. ‘Cause I can’t tell if you’re
old-fashioned, you’re paranoid or just a f**cking asshole.” Except, for Poppea,
those question are rhetorical. Her theme song would not be Tina Turner’s “I
Might Have Been Queen.” Fons’s Poppea, we realize early on, will be queen. Just get her to the
coronation on time.

 The Sopranos operatically limned the complexities of love/lust,
power/vulnerability, allegiance/betrayal and life/death. Yet, as fresh as those
storylines appeared, they were really just modern manifestations of ageless Big
Themes – as Poppea aptly
demonstrates. To provide some genealogical operatic perspective, Poppea was first performed in the
Teatrro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1643 for the Carnival season.

And therein lies the brilliance of OTSL’s current
production: it’s a classic story still capable of captivating and surprising a
modern audience with its ambitious and equally modern Go Big Or Go Home attitude
– when presented this well. If this sounds hyperbolic, then consider the chorus
of gasps that erupted from the audience during the knifing to death of a
character (no spoilers, here). That was proof enough that OTSL’s casting,
direction and design all work seamlessly to achieve an emotionally satisfying,
multi-layered, epiphanic experience.

Unlike its namesake, OTSL’s Poppea, directed by Tim Albery by way of England’s North Opera
(2014), is a perfect marriage in toto.
Albery and set/costume designer Hannah Clark give this age-old tale a more
modern look, setting it in the near past with a sheen that is part mob movie,
part French New Wave and part Mad Men.
It draws upon talents both wide and deep, top to bottom, to achieve its

Photo by Eric WoolseyThe Leads: Part
of the magic of the elevated, high-art opera theater experience is its
potential to entice the audience to suspend its disbelief. Achieving that
alchemy is often more aspirational than actual. OTSL’s Poppea achieves that potential, with Fons, Ryan and Mesko being the
highest-profile examples. Individually they inhabited their roles and collectively
interacted with assured chemistry . Mezzo-soprano Fons nailed the voice,
mannerisms and confidence to turn Poppea from mere conniving character to
queen. Benton, Poppea’s running mate (whether at her side, trailing behind or
just sniffing around) was engaging as a man of great, misguided, misused power.
To his credit, his portrayal – more than once – begged for cries of, “You
dumbstick, don’t do it!” Mesko as Ottavia was no wet dishrag. As a character,
Ottavia is outnumbered and outgunned, but Mesko’s performance garnered audience
sympathy and support for her Sisyphean efforts to save her marriage, status and

Supporting Actors:
Poppea is a rich, multi-layered story
that relies on a large cast. The leads in OTSL’s production were joined by
equally strong supporting performances, including some roles for Richard Gaddes
Festival Artists and Gerdine Young Artists.

As the philosopher Seneca, David Pittsinger’s deep baritone provided
a beautiful gravitas to his efforts to counsel and guide his pupil, Nerone. His
distinctive voice exemplifies another strength of this production – you could
close your eyes and still distinguish the various characters. Tom Scott-Cowell,
a countertenor, was a delight to witness as he pretzeled his desperate character
from jilted lover to cross-dressing assassin.

As if the human machinations weren’t enough, Monteverdi also
threw in some meddling gods, which Albery used to open the opera (even before
it officially starts) by wandering around the set, as if waiting for the party
to get started. Mezzo-soprano Michael was a delightfully puckish, androgynous
and Babe Ruth-ish Amore competing with a weary Virtu, played by Jennifer
Aylmer, and latex-gloved Fortuna, played by Sydney Baedke.

Set and Lighting:
Under Hannah Clark’s design, not an inch of the thrust stage was wasted in this
production that balanced a steam-punk industrial vibe with the beautify period instruments
of the musicians flanking each side. Overhead hung three mid-century modern
chandeliers. Shiny, verdigris back walls were reminiscent of an old natatorium
(apt, for this is a world under water), complete with a ladder used to good
effect by the gods to “ascend” above the action.

In contrast, the walls were punctured by a corrugated sliding
door and another that looked it was stolen from an abandoned meat locker. The
set design also made clever use of a rolling table for feasting, lovemaking, dancing,
peacocking, escaping and, ultimately, as a place to stack the bodies (you stab
‘em, we slab ‘em). Despite these seeming visual incongruities, the set and
design work cohesively with the other elements of this interpretation.

Music: Adding to
the unconventional presentation, Albery elevates the musicians to perform in two
string quartets seated on either side of the stage. The musicians were dressed
mostly in formal ballroom attire, adding a graceful note as they played on violins,
two harpsichords and a variety of period instruments, including Baroque harp, viola
da gamba and theorbos.  

In a debate with the other gods, Amore asserts that love
will win the day. In Poppea, love – blind
love, anyway – does seem to win the day, as Nerone and Poppea finish one of opera’s
great duets and look hesitantly toward an unknowable future. This moment calls
to mind something Dr. Melfi says to Tony Soprano, “Sometimes, it’s important to
give people the illusion of being in control.”

 “The Coronation of Poppea” plays at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 30. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit