L’incoronazione di pop culture reference (Theater an der Wien, 19 October 2015)

Do you know that feeling when you have a lot to say about something but the ideas, interesting as they may be, never quite gel together? The more you try to patch them together, the muddier it gets? This production is a lot like that: too clever and too facile at the same time. There are flashes of brilliance and then simple gags literally explained to you.


Poppea: Alex Penda
Nerone: Valer Sabadus
Ottone: Christophe Dumaux
Ottavia: Jennifer Larmore
Seneca: Franz-Josef Selig
Drusilla: Sabina Puertolas
Nutrice: Marcel Beekman
Arnalta: Jose Manuel Zapata
Fortuna: Victorija Bakan
Virtu | Pallade: Natalia Kawalek
Amore | 1. Famigliare: Jake Arditti
Damigella: Gaia Petrone
Valletto: Emilie Renard
Lucano | 1. Soldat | Konsul | 2. Famigliare: Rupert Charlesworth
Liberto | 2. Soldat | Konsul: Manuel Gunther
Mercurio | Tribun | 3. Famigliare: Christoph Seidl
Littore | Tribun: Tobias Greenhalgh
Conductor: Jean-Christophe Spinosi | Ensemble Matheus

Director: Claus Guth

I went in thinking that conceptually this could be either great or shit. It was neither. It had excellent singing/playing, dramatic commitment across the board and a mish-mash of ideas that added up to brain overload. It’s something of such glutonous glory that it couldn’t be described in any less words, though possibly more would’ve done it rounder justice.

Nerone. It’s safe to say that Valer Sabadus has one of the most beautiful top registers in use today. I was sitting there marvelling at how gorgeous every note sounded – all of a sudden more pleasant that I had ever heard them – how well the trills were controlled and how clearly they were produced. Remarkable qualities and lucky us who have heard it all unfold under our eyes. 

Then I started to wonder whether it was necessary for Nerone to sound so beautiful and somewhat unearthly (but not quail-like; rather like a sort of sleazy archangel or bonsai unicorn). I don’t know that it was. My idea of Nerone is a grown-up toddler incapable of self reflection.

Then of course comes the production’s idea of who Nerone is. It seems like Guth feels that every main opera character must be angsty. I don’t think Nerone is angsty at all. In fact I think he’s the opposite of that. I get that it’s a healthy intellectual exercise to open your mind to wild possibilities about the world but in the end water is always wet. I’ll allow that Nerone has an inferiority complex which he’s trying to compensate by offing even well meaning dissenters. But I can’t see him as remorseful and cut up over why he desires what he desires.

Sexiness. This opera is about excess, about which Guth seems to have agreed. But it feels to me like he was aiming more for real life Nero than for Monteverdi’s. Monteverdi’s Nerone is an annoying narcissist who shits on everyone around him and then gets the girl, too, because his world is set up to work for him – for contemporary audiences also known as the banking crisis. Monteverdi and that Busenello chap were clever enough to cut their story short before shit got ugly. The audience fills in the gaps and gets how sarcastic this ode to love is. No need for finger waving and earnest anti-greed commentaries.

Guth’s Nerone is a tormented narcissist who seemingly can’t get no satisfaction and in the end he offs himself as well. A cynical hark back to Kurt Cobain perhaps. Interesting take but I think it undermines the other central concept of the opera: sexiness. This production just ain’t sexy. No matter what kinky ideas it poses, how often shirts get ripped, how much cross dressing occurs, how hard babes get shoved against the walls or damsels swept off their feet by pretty lies, it’s just not sexy – as far as I’m concerned. It’s all too blase, too calculated, too wink-wink, nudge-nudge and thus low in real fire.

This might’ve been how things went down at Nero’s court, but not in Monteverdi’s opera. If I wanted a history lesson I’d’ve read a book. Excess is ugly, yes, but have you heard the music in this opera? Anything but. Which makes it a lot more subversive than beating us over the head with how horrible these people are. Anybody with two brain cells to rub can tell Seneca aside everybody here is a materialistic, power hungry arsehole – and Seneca a big hypocrite, he’s hanging out with this lot after all. What makes this opera irresistible is that we end up rooting for these scumbags and indulging our dark sides vicariously.

Dramatically, Sabadus is very conscientious and broods (in a detached manner) through everything from selfconsciously kinky sex, an impromtu lounge act performance gone sour and Tristan-style suicide. Imagine Frodo giving in to the ring’s power.

And that’s just Nerone.

Poppea. If we go down the Kurt Cobain route then Poppea is Courtney Love. She’s in any case a leather babe who coldly and almost naggingly maneuvers tries to maneuver a Nerone who hates his own desires. She’s not sure of herself, though, and she appears fragile when she should be gloating after he says he’ll divorce Ottavia. Anticlimax if I ever saw one.

I was curious just how Penda would fare and her Vitellia comes through dramatically (the cold blooded nagging). The woman is surely an interesting singer, with a top register that works well in Monteverdi and a low register worthy of something later and louder. For better and worse that lower register doesn’t get much use here. Better because it contrasts so strongly with everything else around her but worse because it’s the most interesting part of her voice. I read somewhere a very astute description: she’s the kind of singer that needs a conductor (Rene Jacobs in that case) able to guide her. I think Spinosi did a similar thing here. She very much kept within the parameters where she and Sabadus mixed surprisingly well vocally. Poppea did come off as more earthy and willful than Nerone but that worked with the unsophisticated social climber envisioned here.

This is loosely set in the entertainment industry. It’s not clear if Poppea is a singer, too, or just a rabid groupie of rich kid/failed rock star Nerone. Often (certainly in Courtney Love’s case) it’s the same thing.

However Arnalta is most certainly a blossoming (and terribly busy) Divine crossed with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Diana Ross and Beyonce – in other words Camp Central. The pop ballad sendup was hysterical, as were all the other cheap laughs. Then I remembered this wasn’t TV entertainment – or was it? Well… maybe, comical characters in opera are often used for cheap laughs and little else. I also saw a pisstake at opera in her always using a microphone to broadcast everything she had to say. Was this all there? Was my mind merrily sailing the seas of cheese?


the venue seen from Naschmarkt

Amor, Fortuna and Virtu. Usually in productions of this opera these deities do their bit in the Prologue and then they pop up gain in a couple of places and that’s it. In this production their roles are expanded so they very conspicuously judge “the contestants” at every turn (of the revolving stage). It’s a clever trick (it would’ve been even more so about 10 years ago) and very familiar to us all who can’t avoid at least partially being aware of the latest running “scripted reality” shows. The trick gets old pretty quickly but the neat part is noticing how the balance leans from one to the other, without any of the three deities ever being able to completely sway human nature. The joke is that humans are convinced that they are trapped by what is preordained.

With so much stuff going on I can’t remember much about what either Fortuna or Virtu sounded like but Amor had quite a bit to sing and a hell of a lot to scheme (well choreographed physical gags galore, the funniest with Dumaux, who just knows how to fall). Arditti as Amor was very lively and somehow managed to stay engaged through this madness and deliver his singing with accuracy.

Ottone. One of the few characters that’s not been overly spun is Ottone. He comes in wearing a military uniform, though it feels that’s just another opera cliche ticked off the list. We’re talking about a world where everybody is a singer, performer, groupie, bodyguard or random entertainment wannabe and in comes Mr. Pushups. Of course, he comes looking for his bad girl who’s done left ‘im for that there metrosexual Nerone. In that context I’m surprised he’s not returning from doin’ time for assault and battery. Dumaux has always done bratty well and makes a nice – both physical and vocal – contrast to Sabadus’ Nerone. His voice is focused and worldly and conveys frustration very well. When he sings about his lingering love for Poppea and Amor floats feathers from above he catches one in a way that feels spontaneous and fresh among the meta performances around him.

Ha, so you think and so did I for a moment. Among all this turkey stuffing I forgot Ottone has his overwrought moment: he does swap clothes with that gullible gal Drusilla, does he not? And who shows up at Poppea’s with a loaded gun? You guessed, Conchita, helpfully identified to us by a sleeping (!) Arnalta.

Ottavia. Apparently Guth was receptive to what singers wanted to do with these characters. In this case JL brought us Sue-Ellen Ewing, complete with ’80s gown and coif. Ottavia bangs an obsessive note on the piano and drowns her sorrows in cocktails. Classy it ain’t but it fits this internally delapidated bunch of characters. For how somptuous Ottavia can sound she’s very cautious with the low notes where there’s indeed quite a bit of vibrato. But this isn’t a regal Ottavia, rather a frustrated and spiteful WAG. JL and Spinosi work with her current vocal limitations and march on characterisation which I’m pretty sure would do Linda Gray proud.

Beekman’s Nutrice (aka, Mrs. Doubtfire) was gorgeous of voice. Quite in a similar way to how I felt about Sabadus’ interventions I really enjoyed every time Beekman had something to sing. I don’t know how much characterisation was there but the lyrical quality of the sound and the ease with which he seemed to launch his lines appealed to me.

Seneca. He always gets the piss taken out of him. Here apparently he’s supposed to be a Televangelist but to me it felt more like a fuddy-duddy college professor. He preaches virtue but you wonder why he’s bothering. On waiting his own fatal verdict he sits in a bathrobe with his feet in a hot water bucket and peels an apple. Why an apple? Sin? There is a panel with blue skies and fluffy clouds behind him which is also projected on the wall behind the panel. More meta stuff I guess. When he slits his veins it’s all rather graphic and I had the urge to check through my opera glasses just how graphic they wanted to do it. Well, how graphic can they do it? Do we need him to actually cut himself? Also, in the interest of accuracy, you’re not going to die instantly if you slit your wrists. Neither does he, though it looks like that for a moment. He comes back to sing some more, more wink-wink, nudge-nudge. His voice is a pleasant, accomplished bass but I’m not quite as wowed by it as the public, who almost threw most of the applause at him. I really like Matthew Rose in this role. I know it’s not fair to compare but sometimes you just can’t.

After he’s dead, Nerone and Lucano come in to rejoice and half get it on, only to recoil in disgust. Why? This Nerone is indeed very selfconscious for how cool he’d like to think he is. I imagine Guth doesn’t like sex very much, his sex scenes always feel dirty and compulsive rather than lushly self indulgent.

One fun and pointless role in this opera is Valletto, the young chap that’s just there to hit on Damigella (who’s also there just to be hit on by him) and break up a serious pompous moment in order to abuse Seneca with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Your best course of action is to just be loud and obnoxious with Seneca and up the Cherubino sleaze a few notches with Damigella. If you have plenty of chutzpah and can throw in a bit of charm that’s a plus. Emilie Renard also had to rock an outfit that would’ve been very trendy in da hood cca 1992 but thanks to her cheeky charm silliness was well served. There was quite a bit of chemistry between her and Petrone’s Damigella and who around here doesn’t appreciate that rare occurrence, a mezzo-mezzo duet? Thanks to them, not everything was angsty, overwrought and unsexy.

So let’s recap: we had Kurt and Courtney, Divine and Mrs. Doubtfire, Sue-Ellen Ewing, Mr. Televangelist/Social Studies PhD., Mr. Pushups/Conchita, the above kids and a bunch of interpretive dancers plus the panel of the X-Factor, so it was only when the orchestra band played something in Spinosi’s signature speedy manner that I remembered this was an opera after all. But which one?

I didn’t have time to mention it yet, but Spinosi and Ensemble Matheus were not alone in providing musical backbone. There was also a very prominent pre-recorded track of “angsty sounds”, which was usually played during scene changes, possibly to prevent us from getting bored within the span of 10 seconds1 or so we didn’t lose track of the fact that this was a very angsty concept. Well, I never. This reminder must’ve been considered very important, as “angsty sound lady” was reportedly present at every rehearsal, whilst Spinosi and Co. came in at the end.

It’s my feeling that Spinosi’s natural vivacity was hampered by this angsty sound lead which structured everything very rigidly. I wish I could hear it all again to make sure it wasn’t just my inability to cope with the amount of stimuli thrown at me. Until then I’m going to shake my fist at “angsty sound lady” because I came to hear Spinosi and Co. rather than her not particularly original synth stuff.


Monteverdi has a star on the pavement by the venue

Space. The final wedding to the tune of Pur ti miro in the non-space that is the back of the palace/opera backstage is a bit Liebestod/Natural Born Killers/Billy Idol’s White Wedding but by this point I felt like the well of pop references had burst open with such force that associations poured out randomly. I was almost going to say at least there were no martial arts references but we’ve got Ottone jumping off a structure and sweeping Drusilla off with one arm and I was instantly reminded of Dumaux’s legendary antics in Giulio Cesare.

The non-space is interesting as I think is the use of space in general. Thanks to the trusty revolving stage sets, every scene is played in whatever space reflects the character’s mood. There is something interesting about the night sky during Nerone and Poppea’s first scene – perhaps a sense of possibility and excitement. Seneca’s fluffy cloud background was also rather clever. Still, the non-space was my favourite in this context, as it hinted at the emptiness felt by the main protagonists. Indeed for Poppea this is the end of the road, because she embodies the ambition to reach the top of the social ladder. For Nerone life is has nothing more to offer because he’s genuinely only interested in himself – he has a camera film him whilst he’s performing the generous gesture of imperial pardon. Then again, remember the Brussels Tito?

But there is more! There are holiday vouchers for the pardoned Ottone and Drusilla and, and… lots of other details I’m too tired to think about at this hour.

So it was full of ideas but – at least for me – low on genuine emotion. I’m starting to get tired of cynicism whilst opera directors are still going strong.

Here’s my message to opera directors:

  1. main characters aren’t always tormented (by demons),
  2. but you don’t have to make up fresh jokes for every new production,
  3. it’s ok for sex to be sexy,
  4. one can be aware of the ills of the world and still enjoy a good story/music

In other words, lighten up and stop trying to explain everything.

  1. this wasn’t entirely successful; during a scene change before intermission the public jumped up and rushed the doors, which doors stayed stubbornly shut 😉 so people had to do the shuffle back of shame. I myself only remained seated because I was surrounded by slow moving people. 

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on October 22, 2015, in baroque, live performances and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. some serious analysis! (and very interesting.. as i have been building up so many points to compare/contrast re that other thing i’ve been obsessed with 🙂 ) . That poster is creepy though! i wouldn’t dare walk around there at night! 😀 but it sort of gives you a unique feeling about the venue and its contrast to the main haus. That’s great Sabadus’ high voice is the best part, coz Nerone’s music is sitting in soprano range almost, in fact i wonder why more sopranos haven’t taking it on..

    • the poster is funny because it has nothing to do with the prouction! Penda actually wears a (non-flattering) red wig.

      I think if you’re a soprano you rush into the Traviata direction, at best Poppea herself, before you’re even thinking about Nerone. Maybe I’m wrong.

      • also the experience of playing trouser roles.. so perhaps a “high” mezzo depending of offers i guess.. (and can you imagine a young soprano, for attending a master class, offering to sing a Nerone’s aria 😀 (does Nerone even have own aria??) )

        • yes, I guess mezzos get used early on to the fact that they will have to sing trouser roles at least occasionally. Unless they’re too good at it, then they’ll have a hard time escaping them…

          that’s probably another problem, this isn’t exactly the kind of music that is aria oriented. Singers also need to be good actors and that might take some experience. You can’t just stand there and sing this stuff, it’ll sound boring.

  2. Some interesting points – I’ve just finished drafting my post so I’ve allowed myself to read what you thought, and we agree on quite a lot. But you’re more succinct and to the point than me. 😉 I seem to have got lost in psychoanalysing the production. Oops. And for once it looks like I’m buying into the regie slightly more than you. Enjoy it while it lasts. It will not happen often. You’re right that it was oddly unsensuous. I could have done with a tad more sensuality in that singing contest, even if it might have meant I made no sense for the rest of the evening. But never mind. And yep, if you need someone with a knee-meltingly bell-like voice, Sabadus is your man.

    • Plus, I evidently have no pop culture knowledge because I hardly picked up any of those references 😉

      • who knows, I may be talking bollocks! sometimes I pick an idea and it becomes very easy to spin it further 😉 but it makes sense to me and if I can sell it, so much the better 😀 I’m now sorry I wasn’t bold enough the ask Jennifer Larmore if she was indeed aiming for Sue-Ellen Ewing as that one (and Divine) were the most immediately obvious. But I was a bit ditracted at the time 😉

    • the more angles the better! I’m curious about the psychoanalysis, as there is obviously a lot going on angst-wise.

  3. really enjoying your review, thanks!
    (Sue-Ellen and Divine… easy laughs, and low on the genuine emotion. Yep, that.)

    • Glad you enjoyed 🙂 It was interesting to see that Guth can do funny – in a way.

      • Yes, and then to see that the jokes were mostly surface camp – How dif you put it? A production without much genuine emotion? I second that. Goes with the lack of audience reaction that we both commented upon in the intermission…

        • I think he does not, after all, have a sense of humour but felt something was needed to balance the angst (which is in a very surface way how the libretto works, the comic relief characters are very Italian though thankfully not quite as Italian as the 18th century buffo stuff that’s often absolutely idiotic). Well, humour is hard to do right 😉

  1. Pingback: Kultur in Wien | Vienna News

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