Fractured components of Roman Emperor Nero’s mind and psyche rampaged around the marbled L-shaped room at Candoro Marble Thursday night, in Marble City Opera’s production of “Nero Monologues,” the brilliant, pastiche creation of singer and writer Sarah Toth, composer Peter Learn and Australian poet Geoffrey Lehmann.
Toth, who conceived the piece, was stunning. She sang her heart out as the feminine side of Nero’s dying soul, switching back and forth with his deranged, masculine mentality that murdered his wife Poppaea Sabina, symbolized by the bright red gown Nero kicks, twists into knots and throws around, along with a black bra and lace panties spread out on a black and white chaise.
“Each day your perfume in the room grows weaker,” Toth’s Nero mourns.
Symbolized by the glistening red robe in which Toth wrapped herself, Nero already had blood on his hands. He had murdered his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his first wife, Octavia.
In an eerie comment reminiscent of Donald Trump, Nero remarks “If the presentation is right, murder in high places won’t concern the citizens.”
Like black-clad kuroko, the stagehands in classical Japanese kabuki and Noh theater who are conceptually invisible to the audience, Kayla Beard, Marya Barry and Emily Simmons, doubled as three splintered spirits of Nero’s soul.
As kuroko, they handed Toth’s Nero props: daggers, a long rolling pin and a note declaring he had been dismissed by the senate. In a couple of ironic and disturbing scene fragments, Nero’s ego swings his rolling-pin penis, then gestures making love to Poppaea’s underwear while looking at himself in a hand mirror that’s lying above the bra.
In the deaths of Nero’s psychic splinters near the end of the opera, the three splintered pieces of Nero’s soul are stabbed by one of the spirits guiding Nero’s hand, which then slits the remaining spirit’s throat.
All of this is set to Learn’s sound painting score that’s partly made of sharp sounds and crashing chords from pianist Danny Brian’s electric piano, connected by quartet music superbly played by Inner Voices String Quartet, violinists Ruth Bacon and Sarah Ringer, violist Christy Graffeo and cellist Jeanine Wilkinson.
Learn’s composition approach is itself a form of pastiche. He frequently quotes other composers, connected by his own original writing. Portions of Monteverdi’s 1643 opera “L’incoronazione de Poppea” (“Coronation of Poppea”) were inserted into the score for Toth’s singing about Nero’s wife.
There was also music from Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” as well as quotes from Beethoven’s “Serioso” string quartet, the last of his middle quartets, and moments from one of Shostakovich’s dissonant late quartets.
It amounted to a kind of musical stream of consciousness that kept Toth moving from one end of the L to the other, all the while intently watched by an audience seated along the walls.
Wearing black masks, they were both observers of the opera and silent witnesses to Nero’s increasing insanity.
“Nero Monologues” is a stellar addition to Marble City Opera’s impressive collection of chamber pieces performed in unorthodox locations. The opera world is noticing.
“Nero Monologues” will be performed again tonight, Nov. 2, and Sunday night, Nov. 4, at 7:30. Tickets are available at www.marblecityopera.com and at the door. Candoro Arts and Heritage Center is at 4450 Candoro Ave. in south Knoxville.