L’incoronazione di Poppea or sex vs the oversized crown of rarefied intellectualism (Salzburger Festspiele, 12 August 2018)
Your reactions to my first impressions were so conducive to discussing the ideas behind this production right there in the comments section that I first decided not to do it again here. But then I thought I can just be very foldy-Baroque and quote myself in green (didn’t them Baroquers invent meta?) for coherence.
If you want to see the larger context of that discussion you can always click on the above link. And if you’ve already read them, you can just skip to the pictures 😉 To those who happen not to know: the stuff in green are my replies to questions, so (even) more colloquial than usual.
Poppea: Sonya Yoncheva
Nerone: Kate Lindsey
Ottavia: Stephanie d’Oustrac
Ottone: Carlo Vistoli
Seneca: Renato “I’m not a bass!” Dolcini
Virtu/Drusilla: Ana Quintans
Nutrice/Famigliare I: Marcel Beekman
Arnalta: Dominique Visse
Amore/Valletto: Lea Desandre
Fortuna/Damigella: Tamara Banjesevic
Pallade/Venere: Claire Debono
Lucano/Soldato I/Tribuno/Famigliare II: Alessandro Fisher
Liberto/Soldato II/Tribuno: David Webb
Littore/Console I/Famigliare III: Padraic Rowan
Mercurio/Console II: Virgile Ancely
Haus fur Mozart, Les Arts Florissants with William Christie
Director: Jan Lauwers
Let’s start by saying the Concept is overly Intellectualised, in a manner similar to the treatment of last year’s Currentzito but luckily the music wasn’t fudged with (thank you, Christie). Trust the mature chap in red socks over the trendy dude from permafrost. Or trust Valletto:
Se tu non dai soccorso
Alla nostra Regina in fede mia
Che vuo accendert’il foco
E nella barba, e nella libraria.
In fede, in fede mia.
(Before we move on, did y’all notice that Valletto’s scene with Damigella is basically Non so piu + Voi che sapete? Plus ca change…).
I think the discourse today is anti-storytelling ([the director] also mentions broken narratives, nonlinearity, different (ie, women’s) perspectives etc.) – which I guess is what they did with Tito as well – but human brains still function this way, so… overreaching.
Even so, it wasn’t without merits if you didn’t blink much:
it’s definitely interesting but I would’ve done so many things differently! From the booklet I learned that the director likes improv and I don’t think you can do good improv with people who don’t know each other very well. The singers feel left to their own devices, which might – just might – work with very seasoned performers and musicians who have worked together for a long time, otherwise it’s all a bit amdram to me.
Maybe I’m wrong. He’s very into “let’s build the moment” rather than come up with a plan, which, in theory is great, but I learned it the hard way that many moments are very dull for those who are not within that moment with you (it’s like being the only sober person in a roomful of drunks). Maybe fun for those on stage but what about us? If you’re not communicating with us in a language we are privy to, then what is the point? This is not meditation, it should be a shared experience. I don’t mean everything should be scripted but you do need to have a direction towards which people can guide their improv. You can’t just say “act crazy” or “act silly” – more like, come on, which kind of crazy, which kind of silly? Giving some guidelines does not mean people’s imagination is stifled, on the contrary, it has a basis on which to flourish.
But let’s move on to specifics:
Prologue: regarding divinities: [the director’s] point was that they are obsolete – which would make the prologue redundant – so to illustrate that he doubled all three of them with a cripple. What I thought was that they each had “adopted” a cripple and were behaving with him according to their (divinities’) nature but it turned out the cripples were themselves!
I mean if Amore was crippled Ottone could’ve succeeded in killing Poppea 😉
Aside from all the usual characters in the opera there are a lot of people (dancers) on stage at all times.
Most of the dancing is someone (they swap places when one of them gets tired) continuously spinning in the background. Now that stops being interesting about 5min in. After much watching it dawned on me that the spinning = how divinities (remember the prologue) are playing with humans as with puppets. Hardly original. Kosky might’ve used a spinning class instead 😉
What you will absolutely not get without reading the booklet is how [the director] means all the people we see in the background to be “the forgotten of history”. Like I said, nice nod to the little people but 1) nothing to do with Poppea, 2) you wouldn’t be like “aha, that’s it!” just from watching.
I guess he wants us to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around those remembered by history, though since the opera is about Poppea/Nerone and not about the little people the point is moot 😉 Also the libretto actually deals with this issue, with all the already existent “little people” characters, which there are a lot more than in an “I really care about the people” opera like Aida, where we have what, 2 outsiders? Plus the little people here aren’t always victims.
So now that we have dancers
get in the way make us pay attention to the plight of the unseen, what?
the dancing never stops! So when you have so much focus on that, you better come up with something very elaborate and interesting, no? I’ve seen by now quite a bit of dancing incorporated in opera – just to give you a very recent example, Saul – that had a lot more cleverly done movement that commented on what the libretto was saying. In fact, I was just thinking as it was happening “hey, Salzburg, is this all you’ve got? Come to London/UK, you’ll learn a thing or two”. Rodelinda from ENO, Kosky’s The Nose, Sellars’ The Gospel according to Mary – all very interesting movement compare to this that I can think off the top of my head.
My buildup to the performance was why isn’t this the Zurich
Ottone Poppea which ran in June/July? Boohoo. Except you forget all about it around the time you reach Salzburg town. Because the grass is really greener in Salzburg. Whereas it’s always nice – and these days, very rare – to have a contralto Ottone in a production that surprisingly seems to understand Ottone has some sexy scenes to exploit, it’s even better to have a woman Nerone – and by that I don’t just mean a mezzo Nerone. One of the things this production hits a homerun in is to have a gender ambiguous Nerone. For WS that means more woman for your buck, for trendy types it means whatever you want it to mean. A golden Klimt suit/poses, high heels, braids, or maybe bread foam, circus and free makeout sessions for all.
As far as women’s perspectives, this opera is about Poppea to begin with and if we establish Nerone is also a woman, then I guess you would want to see how a woman deals with unlimited power? But it looks more or less like a male Nerone does, so I wasn’t the wiser in the end – missed opportunity if I’ve ever seen one. Unless he wants to say women behave in traditionally male ways when they achieve power, but the booklet didn’t say anything about that.
(More) Salzburger Festspiele fawning
When, merely two months ago, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse I didn’t quite realise that not only dude, you’re going to Salzburger Festspiele! but dude, it’s Poppea‘s premiere night and your seat is in the parterre stalls. Luckily this summer’s few stints at Glyndebourne came in handy by dunking me in poshness long enough to survive this much swankiness in one go. Dude, I’ve never actually walked on a red carpet (that wasn’t faux persian) before! Excuse the country bumpkin sense of wonder, but it’s still surreal. An actual red carpet! So the key terms of summer 2018 are “hot”1 and “posh”. As Arnalta would say, much better than “cold” and “poor”.
As far as opera festivals go, Salzburg, too, lives up to its reputation. It’s the Rolex/
Mercedes Audi! Audi!2 of opera festivals. Wood panels and really comfy seats/legroom aplenty3. Not just comfy seats but seats for all. Now we can sit for a moment and ponder if seats for all at higher prices is better than standing for some for a bargain. It’s interesting to have the opportunity to compare Glyndebourne poshness to Salzburg poshness, whilst sharing the hall with familiar faces (hello, Christie and Lindsey, haven’t I seen you just a month ago?). I wager Haus fur Mozart (the smallest auditorium of the three) sits about the same number of people as Glyndebourne and the acoustics seem similar as well. The audience, though, reacts quite differently.
People kept dropping things, like at least 5-6 times. I wonder if they fell asleep 😉 (and why would you hold things in you lap when there is SO much legroom and room under your seat? you could stash a Golden Retriever in there). The chap next to me actually glared when I chuckled at Valletto’s antics towards Seneca but then sort of lay back on the backrest as if taking a break from all the talking. But when Arnalta had her bitchy arioso later on others finally laughed as well! Small steps.
The Festspiele caters to you so much that you can use your ticket on public transport before and after the opera. Except, come on, you’re in Salzburg, the rivers are crystal clear and the hills alive with… they actually are, because the opera houses are built into the cliff. I for one wanted to breathe the air and walk all the streets and mountain trails and have my own makeout session – with the venues 😉
After a midday stroll around town/hike, I went to the venue really early and waited on my now beloved steps for busy woman Giulia who was packing two operas in one day. I hope she writes about Salome, because we had some fun discussing the dead horse head, which she (Salome, not Giulia) gets instead of Jokanaan’s sexy mug. Maybe religion is a dead horse to be beat? Or something? Anyway, I didn’t see that production (I’m fine with one Salome a year) but it sounded like another exercise in trying really hard to be different. It’s kind of interesting that sexy cannot simply be sexy anymore (imo, Salome has enough kink not to warrant trying to twist it further, but who knows, I may be really square and not know it).
Poppea wins but about the unlucky ones?
Now let’s have a word about Vistoli’s Ottone and d’Oustrac’s Ottavia. These two didn’t seem to interest the director, so they both looked like they wandered in from another (unsexy) opera about middle management – especially Vistoli, whose E pur io torno qui was completely ruined by the video projections to the point that his performance seemed lacklustre to me, in comparison to his stint as Ruggiero in Orlando, where his voice stood out beautifully. Younger singers really benefit if a director helps them out. He also appeared to understand this and looked like he was toughing it out in spite of the projections.
I really thought […] incorporating video projections will work but it never went anywhere (as usual with projections – again I remember how Richard Jones worked it in cleverly in Rodelinda) and I thought it was too bad!
You know there was that thing a few years ago when VR was all the rage and this video company did this “choose your own adventure” opera project and had this very thing, with multiple cameras on stage – I thought it was gonna be that! And we could see what everyone was doing at all times during the opera. That would have been great – again, IF what they did was at all interesting. But you need a bit of pre-planning for that, which there was none. And then they just stopped! I was like, wait, where are the cameras? Try some more, you made a big deal out of it and now the idea seems totally abandoned. MAYBE it was part of the “let’s stay in the moment and if it ain’t working we’ll cut it”, but that seems very whimsical for not very much and also very lazy! If you have a good idea and you presented it to the world, you kind of have a responsibility to do something with it, otherwise it’ll make you look like a fool.
It looked like Lindsey and Yoncheva were the only ones briefed about this video thing and they tried to play into it best they could, whereas Desandre, Quintans, Beekman and Visse just went with their regular opera instincts and won their battles by being good actors in the old, established way. The rest appeared not to know if they were coming or going in the midst of all this madness.
What I am curious NOW is if/how they change anything as the run moves on, because the boos were hearty 😉 I would’ve wanted to come see more shows just for that alone (but if things didn’t change much I’d’ve been annoyed).
(Returning to crimes against Ottone) they did not dress [him] as a woman, he kept wearing his normal clothes. Here is exactly where a contralto Ottone makes sense, when Ottavia observes that s/he could fool anyone wearing women’s clothes. But nothing was done with this. Poor Vistoli just had to stand there, looking rather forlorn.
As for d’Oustrac, she was a classic Ottavia as far as I could tell and so her appearances (accompanied by a lowering chandelier) had the effect of stopping the sexy action. I’m not her biggest fan as it is because of lack of colour but I couldn’t say there was anything wrong with her interpretation and her stage presence was solid, very illustrative of Nerone’s bitching that Ottavia is infrigidita ed infeconda. Then again, laments. It’s really not easy to rock Ottavia and, again, perhaps I prefer more heft. And/or Hallenberg (though Larmore sure had her charm/chutzpah and felt like a real person).
The other ones escaped unscathed old school-style, with very good singing and distinctive stage presence from Desandre’s Valletto (he and Damigella made a really fun couple) and Quintans’ Drusilla, especially. Beekman sang beautifully like he did at TADW and Visse is still a stage animal.
Out of the costumes on display, this side of the principals, Seneca’s pompous coat (actually pointy-square) was a lot of fun, though I was starting to pity the singer for having to wear that on such a hot day. Drusilla’s dress built on layered-transparency was also up my alley.
There was this blob on stage, originally stashed to the side and eventually brought to the fore and assembled for Drusilla and Ottone, all sparkly silver, like a Christmas-y foam Mr Hankey, which I really didn’t get. Man, it was fugly as all getout! I don’t think I’ve seen such an hideously cheap-looking prop in my life, Poundland would be ashamed to have it on its shelves. In comparison, the gameshow desks from Guth’s TADW Poppea were ITV at its most ghetto fabulous. I suppose all the money went to the video projections which were abandoned 20min in?
I’m not opposed to a mostly empty stage, in fact I prefer it to clutter, but if you’re going to have a prop, make it look like… something (it occurs to me that maybe it was a very crude representation of “happy ending clouds”?). Usually with Poppea we have a setee or a bed for obvious reasons, but a floor can function well for all the down and dirty getting. A blob… well. At least it wasn’t a dead horse head and our anti-heroines kissed at the end (and quite a bit in between), no particular dark clouds looming in the future (though a couple of times I think Poppea looked a bit uncertain, which I liked. A hint is ok, overdoing the foreshadowing is too much. We all know, I promise you, what is going to happen; in fact, having it pointed out that Poppea is soon going to be kicked to death by the hubster is for me on par with hearing once again how Baroque really means “broken pearl”. I want to beat it with that dead horse head).
When it’s good, it’s sexy good
But let’s talk a bit about the things that worked. After Poppea and Nerone’s sexy scene where Nerone says she needs to leave in order to divorce Ottavia, we have Poppea happily sing to herself about her good luck. Whilst she’s all wahey! Nerone is finally trapped in my honeypot! we see Nerone run around in the background, making out with everyone and their nutrices – actually, it’s “the little people”, who all look grim and scared of her, except for a couple of “fans” who can’t believe their goodluck at having been snogged by sex-guru Nerone. That’s the kind of foreshadowing I can get behind.
You could say well, dehggi, aren’t you the very same person who bitches to no end about the horribility of Don Giovanni? Why are you ready to cut Nerone so much slack? I guess because it’s so obvious s/he’s a loose cannon? I’m not saying I’m right or not hypocritical; I just like Nerone a lot better4. I know Don Giovanni is also satire but it feels to me a lot more laced-up (different times). This one is relaxed and tongue in cheek and unsentimental from end to end. We don’t pity anyone, there are no heroes, just a bunch of flawed people who behave very badly indeed in moments of crisis. Plus Don Giovanni just isn’t sexy (aside from Zerlina’s antics, which would fit right in here).
Speaking of sexy, I was talking about what the production did well. Most of the Poppea/Nerone interaction is hothothot, as I’m sure you all know by now from the gifs already in circulation. Yay to that, because Poppea without sex is just an extended moaning session set to music. It’s good to see the singing and the action on stage raise the temperature in the room instead of tripping each other. Though Nerone seems at her most together in Poppea’s company, her other behaviour makes it a bit difficult to see why Poppea specifically.
At one point it seemed like both of them were partaking of those scared semi-naked people5 but usually Nerone is indulging when Poppea is busy making plans for the future. But maybe he likes her because Poppea is the only one not afraid? Usually it’s Nerone who does things to others but Poppea is very ready to take the lead, which seems to get Nerone’s undivided attention.
This is a good place as any to comment on how, though others have ariosos – sometimes more than one – Nerone only ever appears in scene-duets with others. How interesting. We don’t really know what she really thinks (Lauwers may rejoice that Nerone’s perspective is skipped in favour of those less favoured by fate 😉 ).
I also liked – visually – the scene where Poppea falls asleep. Here she’s standing, sort of in the arms of the… little people again? It looks good, naked and semi-naked people holding each other, in the way a more racy fashion photoshoot does, but I wonder if it’s meant to say anything? Like she’s the embodiment of the hopes and ambitions of all those people who try to get rich but die trying instead (if you pardon my 50 cent pun)? If this is foreshadowing again then cool. If it’s not, still cool.
Though I’ve seen the production with Yoncheva and Cencic, I thought by now she had moved on to later rep. I suppose she likes this role (she looks like she’s enjoying herself) and the voice is still surprisingly able to cover it without sounding 2 levels bigger than everyone else’s around her. This was an excellent achievement. Not to diminish her obvious musicality and professionalism, but I think Christie’s experience shows here as elsewhere. The whole really fit together seamlessly – and we really should see her and Lindsey paired more often (before it’s too late and she does embrace Verdi6 and whatnot for good) because it’s not just eyecandy, their voices do work wonderfully together.
There was one good bit about [dancing], when it finally looked functional – when Seneca has to kill himself and all “his people” are dropping dead around him – that was well done.
I realise I spent so much time talking about the production and did not mention the “ugly singing” even in my first impressions. Said unpretty singing (worst offender: Lindsey) really ticked Giulia off, but I could live with it mostly without issues. Every once in a while (when he’s particularly mean) Nerone pulls off a squeak, on the goofy side of unpretty (Nerone going a bit Lazuli – not as strange as it may seem, Lindsey made out with all the women on stage there as well!). But this isn’t just some random thing Nerone did to aleviate the boredom of roaming the back of the stage, kicking hard working people. Nope, this is something our director specifically wanted, in order to better express the “dark nature” of Baroque. Because, you see, it’s not just an imperfect pearl with many folds, but those folds are very dark indeed.
Gorgeous singing – this is the best I’ve heard from Lindsey, and I’ve seen her a lot, even two months ago; she should sing more of this stuff; Yoncheva rocked, too, and the two of the have excellent chem, both vocally and dramatically – some fabulous diminuendi in their scenes together (you know which, the supremely sexy ones = Scene III Act I, Scene X Act I, Scene V Act II and, of course, Scene VIII Act II).
- Guess what, gentle reader? It was hot in Salzburg, too! Haha. ↩
- Must get the sponsors right 😉 they “paid” me with sandwiches and coffee, after all. ↩
- And exceptionally clean toilets. ↩
- Me, like Roman characters? You don’t say. ↩
- Reminds me of Darla and Drusilla of Buffy-fame’s spree – speaking of which, I can totally see a vampire themed Poppea! Has this been done? ↩
- Giulia saw her as Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlo and thought she wasn’t yet ready for that. ↩
Posted on August 16, 2018, in baroque, italian opera, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, opera trips, sopranos and tagged claudio monteverdi, l'incoronazione di poppea, les arts florissants, salzburger festspiele 2018, william christie. Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.