Category Archives: baroque

Roberta Invernizzi, two lutes, one viola da gamba and beguiling canzoni (Wigmore Hall, 19 November 2018)

I love these one shot (no interval) lunchtime Wiggy concerts! It’s usually pensioners and music students – and people who eat music on rye for lunch 😉 I try to get the day off for them, because otherwise they are really inconvenient for anyone working shifts but sometimes needs must include good ole’ skiving 😉 Put yourself in my place: 17th century love songs vs. Monday1 at work. I don’t care how much you love your job, music should win or you’re reading the wrong blog.

Anyway, I was only 1 1/2hrs late, so I’m keeping my respectability, especially after looking like I saved the day from a short on staff afternoon! Baroque heroes, you’ve got nothing on me.

Roberta Invernizzi soprano
Rodney Prada viola da gamba
Craig Marchitelli lute
Franco Pavan lute

Giulio Caccini: Dolcissimo sospiro; Dalla porta d’oriente

Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger: Passacaglia

Claudio Monteverdi: Ecco di dolci raggi; Disprezzata Regina from L’incoronazione di Poppea

Orazio Bassani: Toccata per B quadro

Girolamo Frescobaldi: Canzone a basso solo

Tarquinio Merula: Folle è ben che si crede

Luigi Rossi: La bella più bella

Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger: Arpeggiata

Sigismondo D’India: Intenerite voi, lagrime mie; Cruda Amarilli

Claudio Monteverdi: Si dolce è’l tormento; Voglio di vita uscir

Encore:

Giulio Caccini: Amarilli, mia bella from Le nuove musiche

It’s been a couple of weeks or so from Lemieux with nothing – nothing! The upside is you really appreciate the musicians’ efforts after a drought. As soon as Invernizzi spun out the very first trill I was all how I wish I could do that! And when the lutes kicked in I thought this is it, I was born to listen to this 😉 I also, quite unusually, had a seat at the front of the venue, which, with Invernizzi works well as you get all sorts of nice dynamic transitions. This is the kind of concert where there is so little time, you need to be on from the moment you step on stage.

I really enjoyed her in this rep – probably my favourite performance from her. She has the style down pat and she didn’t either force or hold back, she was completely at home. As usual I liked the jaunty songs best (Dalla porta d’oriente has the same tune as Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi) but Disprezzata regina by a soprano wasn’t a bad idea at all. It was a lot less stark and brutal than the recent one from Salzburg (it seemed like 2 lutes made a lot more noise than Christie’s entire band) but her tone and her investment worked nicely indeed. Voglio di vita uscir, a favourite of Baroque recitalists, with that playful start that belies its glum title, was, unsurprisingly, giddier than usual.

All in all, this is exactly my idea of a Monday lunchtime concert – content and presentation. I don’t know that I have words for how emotionally close I feel to this stuff. Might as well sneak in another Venice picture, though not everything above comes from Venice.

remember what I said about nighttime walks in Venice?


  1. Mondays and Wednesdays are the busiest for us. 
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Lively Invernizzi on BBC 3 Lunchtime Concert

What better way to start the week than a mini-performance of 17th century songs? Luckily, BBC3 agrees and you can too sample Invernizzi and friends’ delightful one hour show from earlier today.

Cantiam, cantiam, Lucano!

A propos of nothing, except I wanted to re-listen to this somewhat curious scene. Observe how back then it was done of peep show-style and now it’s all fluid sexuality. Let’s do a then and now – sorry for the bad quality video (then and now):

THEN

NOW

PS: just in case you thought the “blubber of love” in the background was something sprung out of Lauwers’ mind (also sorry for the tenor not staying in tune):

Serse with tomato and beans + Galoumisù desert (Barbican, 26 October 2018)

This show could be summed up simply as:

Galoumisù

But it actually was a very entertaining evening even beyond the Galoumisù daydreaming.

A funny thing happened right before the performance started. First, I firmly demanded my seat back from a gent, only to realise I was in the wrong row – because surely I wasn’t sitting in the second row, was I? Yes, I was. I don’t even know how long ago I bought this ticket, possibly last decade 😉 All I remembered was that it was on the left side of the stalls. Well, it turned out I was 2m away from the performers, and judging by Anik’s curtain call picture from TADW, just where Galoumisù would be positioned. I just now realise that was her position at curtain call but hey! wishful thinking can work in your favour (she didn’t wear the pumpkin dress but the steel-purplish one was backless fine as well).

Lady in front row: this is row B! Everything is confusing in this hall!
Gent sitting next to me in row C: this building is designed to help people get lost. So, come here often?
dehggi: [haha] yes, all the time! What brought you here this evening?
Gent row C: actually, I’ve a soft spot for Galou.
dehggi: !!!!!!

Now THAT is the way to chat dehggi up 😀 After a bit of Galoumisù fan…personing, we realised we were from the same neck of Eastern Europe. What are the odds?!

Franco: Santa Maria della Salute is not where we’re singing this! But I had a premonition dehggi would go to Venice around the same time so I insisted we use this image…

Serse: Franco Fagioli (aka, the beans)
Arsamene: Vivica Genaux
Amastre: Delphine Galou (aka, Galoumisù)
Romilda: Inga Kalna
Atalanta: Francesca Aspromonte
Elviro: Biagio Pizzuti
Ariodate: Andreas Wolf (uncredited by the Barbican site (bad Barbican!) but there are like 3 Handel basses doing the rounds these days)
Conductor: Maxim Emelyanychev | Il pomo d’oro (aka, pomodoro = the tomato)

There was a high level of involvement from everyone, down to curtain call antics (Aspromonte singlehandedly1 clearing up some music stands for access to the front of the stage, Genaux trying to sneak her music book back and Galoumisù graciously handing it to her, Genaux mocking Aspromonte’s pulling up her dress so she could walk faster, Pizzuti giving his (real) bouquet to the string player he’d pestered as Elvira, the fake florist etc.).

I finally saw Fagioli act! Now Serse is a role where he can be himself 😉 The endless rows of ornamenti and consummate self absorption fit Serse to a t (or to an s). Even him walking off stage after every aria, regardless of drama around him fit, because it falls right into Handel’s intended mockery of everyone’s melodrama.

I love the structure of this opera even more than I love the arias per se. The Serse-trademark speech interrupted by singing interrupted by speech interrupted by more singing feels so fresh and modern (or Neapolitan, perhaps?). Go Papa Handel! I love how he lavishes great tunes for only a minute or so and isn’t afraid to go back to Spechgesang all I’m playin’ wid’ya! All of the characters are made fun or – and in turn make fun of others. I love how characters just pop up when it’s convenient for them to do so –

Romilda (supposedly alone): oh, Serse, that tyrant!
Serse (cheerful): anyone mention my name?

[much later on:]

Romilda (when she’s run out of sensible arguments against Serse’s pestering): ok, my lord, it will be as you wish!
Arsamene (supposedly not in the room):  ok, my lord, it will be as you wish! So much for your ardently professed faithfulness!

Before we go forward, let’s talk a bit about Fagioli, the star of the night. Now that I sat so close and after we have discussed him at length, I can see the vibrato and I can feel the tension – indeed it’s so great, half the time I’m afraid he’ll blow a gasket. Singing doesn’t have to look like a Strong Man competition. But it can and in his case it sure does. I’m also amused about his stance, which is always on the verge of Olé!

His acting was much more involved than usual and with flashes of comedic brilliance, especially when dismissing others (which Serse does a lot) or “wooing” Romilda (who knew he had it in him?!) but the ornamenti felt a bit noodly and, as much as he can do it, I’ve heard more sparkling Crude furies. Perhaps unfair of me to say that, as it comes so late in the game, but maybe if he didn’t pack so much tension from the start… Ombra mai fu felt like his best moment of the night, vocally. Or it’s just me always connecting to his softer singing

The public loved him, of course, but I’ve seen him so many times now that, as earwormopera once said about JDD,

Is there such a thing as awesome fatigue? I’ve heard DiDonato live quite a few times now, and I think I may be chasing the dragon, in a sense that she’s as good as she always is, but I’m so used to it that it doesn’t stun me as much as it did the first time.

So I have a feeling this would be a good point to call it a day as far as following Franco. Blaze of glory and all that.

What with all the excitement about other characters, Kalna’s Romilda got less applause than she should have. She did some fine juxtapositions of quiet and loud singing that showed great control and her voice is as flexible as ever. Romilda is one of those costante amante that have endless woe is me, I’m so oppressed but I will stay true to my principles arias and get energetic only once in the last act (right about the time she gets annoyed at Arsamene for not trusting her after all this effort, bless her heart), which was the one time she also got deserved applause. The woman is very versatile and underrated.

Genaux, Galoumisù and Aspromonte were kickin’ it in heels. When you sit so close to the stage you have ample opportunity to ponder on singers’ walking gear, which is level with your nose (or, if you’re particularly short, your hairline). I don’t think you’ll be surprised if I told you Galoumisù wins the stiletto competition. How she skips around in them I don’t know, but they are spiky, high and stylish as all getout. Let me take a(nother) minute to

Ok, back to women’s oppressive footwear. Genaux’s Arsamene was going for that Goth look where men wear leather, heels and eyeliner – or she was just taking the men right out of Arsamene. The shoes weren’t bad, consisting of a patch of black leather (also worn at TADW), but Galoumisù’s silver bead pair to accessorise the purplish dress was in a different class altogether. Aspromonte wore a pair of practical white pumps, which was why she could “roll up her sleeves” and organise the music stands 😉 We don’t know what Kalna wore under the turquoise dress.

Genaux is Genaux and although I doubt I’ll ever be a fan, Arsamene sits well for her, plus she can act and seems to have a sense of humour that she can adapt to the chumminess that usually runs through Baroque specialist circles.

As the night went on, I came to a conclusion on the issue I have with Aspromonte, who has so far been a very reliable performer if uneven at hitting that emotional spot with me (best fit: the trouser role of Alceste in Arianna in Creta). As far as I’m concerned, Atalanta is one of those roles owned by Piau. Aspromonte’s voice is less light, so the impishness does not come out of her vocal delivery alone. Atalanta is a very young and cunning girl, who has the guts to compete with her older sister for love and the selfishness to use any means necessary to get the man when he’s not responding to her wiles. Amusingly, her plans get thwarted by adults who aren’t as easy to manipulate as she thinks they are. Aspromonte is good and very convincing dramatically, especially in that girlish pink dress.

Pizzuti as Elviro was a riot at Elvira, as he needed to be. Elvira the florist’s entrance was hilariously loud and garish, smack dab into Amastre’s heartfelt moaning about being betrayed by her adored Serse. That’s what I’m talking about! While we’re at it, you gotta love the piss taken out of opera disguises, what with Elviro’s hastily applied head scarf and super obviously fake woman’s voice or Amastre’s equally fail “en travesti”, which consisted of a long-ish and clashingly unstylish coat on top of her very “royal” dress. We could totally believe she was a warrior forged in the heat of battle! Haha.

Then we have Wolf’s Ariodate, opera’s most amiable army commander. He’s basically there to say yes, Your Highness! and confuse matters at THE crucial moment of the opera. Plus he’s been in charge of the Most Badass Bridge of the Ancient World, to link Asia with Europe and crown Serse’s ambitions at conquering the world. Both Elviro and Amastre take pot shots at the bridge’s reliability. Is there nothing sacred in this libretto, you will ask? Nothing, gentle reader, nothing.

Except Amastre’s gorgeousness. Are you ready for more eyelash batting? OMG. So you know how she usually doesn’t get applause because contralto or something – possibly the narrow beam effect2. But this time I was determined to rectify this, so as soon as Amastre’s vengeange aria finished and she started to walk away I wrestled the clapping right out of the audience (I’ll be sending in my application to the Strong Person contest, too). So she actually turned around and gave us a little curtsy and me (I hope it was me) her cheeky smile. Dehggi = in love!

gentle readers: wait a minute, dehggi, you’ve been batting the eyelashes at Galou’s altar for how long now?
dehggi: since March 2015. Your point? Love needs to be tended to on a daily basis.

fellow Galou fan: she has such an exquisite voice.
dehggi: where do you think Galoumisù comes from? And I love her manner of singing, though I still don’t quite know how to characterise it. There’s something she does with sound that’s very cool; it’s not simply beautiful singing, it’s sculpted sound (from my Giulio Cesare in Vienna review: […] timing and interactions with the orchestra – the way she got in and out of the phrase and how that blended with the sound around her).
fellow Galou fan: in my opinion she’s very beautiful.
dehggi:

But I was actually talking about Andreas Wolf as Ariodate, right? You don’t remember that? Well, I was. I like his voice a lot, one of those flexible basses that can cope with Baroque coloratura without forcing the gates at the Strong Man contest (yes, I know, this post is all about English breakfast, Italofrench desert and the Strong Man contest. I’m trying to tell it like it is).

I know a lot of people really dig on Emelyanychev’s antics but to me he’s equally as ready to join the Strong Man contest as Mr Argentinian Bean. He looks like he’s wrestling the sound out of his very talented string players, to the point it made me wonder if, left to their own devices, they’d suddenly feel lost at sea and end up sounding like Disarmonia. That being said, 4 hours pass like nothing under his care and his singers are greatly taken care of, especially our evening’s beans on toast, whom he was setting up to soar. What can I tell you about the Attack of the Baroque Tomatoes? That string sound is sweet and they can roque without sounding like they’re trying hard to be cool. But to be honest, sitting on a side I don’t think I got the best of their abilities, except for the strings on the left that I keep mentioning and which healed the still lacerating wounds caused by… that which shall only be named once in this paragraph.

Moral of the story: a) the very front is for getting the best out of the singers, stay further back for the band, b) talk to your neighbours, they might be your real life neighbours, c) someone two people over to my right was – very obviously – recording the show so it could surface somewhere. I wanted to talk to her about it but my neighbour distracted me. Oh, well, sometimes pleasant memories are better than overly scrutinised reality 😉

But since I failed to bring the camera along when sitting smack dab in front of the stage, let me leave you with a shot of the general area of where I think Franco is (supposedly) twirling in the above poster, as seen from Santa Maria della Salute:

San Giorgio Maggiore with lighthouse, blue skies and really warm sun


  1. how often does the soprano do menial work?! 
  2. aka, small, forward concentrated voice (= the laser of gorgeousness). 

Versatile mezzo appreciation post or Lucia Cirillo vs the sea

You can’t love Baroque opera and not be particularly soft on rough sea arias:

Do I need to remind you that, earlier this year, Cirillo was the unabashedly hedonistic Alcina in Vivaldi’s Orlando, at the wonderful Teatro Malibran in Venezia (where else?!)? I don’t think so. But you can still catch it on Culturebox, if you haven’t already done so.

PS: Yes, y’all, a very post-lazy month is nearing its end (don’t forget to change your clocks tonight, lest you show up one hour early to wherever you’re going tomorrow 😉 ), and that means I’m cramming it like a student on exam week. But let me take this opportunity to thank all who have nevertheless read the blog, even though there were only two new posts.

Those who don’t agree with us… write their own blog posts

Venice will vanish into the sea and Salzburg will slide into Salzach 😉 until then, enjoy another shot of the festival area, now from the other side.

After a 3 week honeymoon with like-minded thoughts and the work itself, the time has come to read other opinions on Poppea (yes, I know, the world has moved on by I have not. It’s Tito month and I’m still stuck in Rome one generation before that story).

For kicks I also listened to Karajan’s trainwreck in the meanwhile and came out with further thoughts: the chap singing Seneca survived best, mostly because his voice was the most suited to the role and because he either made the most effort to sound Monteverdian or he actually had an idea about what that enticed. A contralto Arnalta is usually not a good idea; neither is a tenor Valletto (same thing with the Enescu Festival Poppea; it’s a Cherubino character, leave it to women; never heard a CT in it but worse comes to worst I’d rather hear one than a tenor).

But back to 2018:

Jan Lauwers’s first opera production may be accounted a significant success: alive to theatre, its possibilities and impossibilities, its illusions and delusions. (from A Highly Successful Production of L’incoronazione di Poppea in Salzburg)

If a spinning marathon = alive to theatre then yes.

I heard a good few objections – nothing wrong with that in itself, of course – which, sadly and revealingly, seemed to boil down to that perennial bugbear of ‘too much going on’. By definition, ‘too much’ of something will be a bad thing – although sometimes, perhaps, bad things are required. (from same as above)

When it comes to entertainment too much of boring and illogical isn’t something I want. Bad things can be interesting, not the case here.

Few of the characters in L’incoronazione di Poppea, even Seneca, a somewhat compromised and therefore all the more credible exception, evince scruples in that or any other respect. Sometimes we, sometimes they too, need to ask why, or at least seem to need to do so. It does not, then, seem entirely unreasonable, nor out of keeping with the spirit of this extraordinary work, to attempt something similar. (from same as above)

I’m in agreement with this (though it’s wooly written, so I cleared it up for the reader). Yet I’m not interested in any production telling me why. That’s for each of us to draw from our own experiences with “horrible people”. I’m interested in a production not making things busy for the hell of it. The author seems to imply that simply busy = making us think. On the contrary.

I’m adding a nighttime picture of Salzburg just to make you think (about the smoothness of my new camera)

It is, at any rate, likely to prove more enlightening than simply complaining that ‘too much is going on’. ‘Have you ever seen a Frank Castorf production?’ I was tempted to ask. (from same as above)

What’s that got to do with anything? I have seen this production and it messed with my head for no discernable reason. (Visual) art should speak for itself, not need booklets explaining it1. (Incidentally that Castorf production looks a lot more coherent but I didn’t see it so I won’t be commenting)

The next paragraph is bad writing on the subject of whether or not there is any parallel between Busenello’s libretto and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, psychology (or lack thereof) and whether whatever Accademia deli Incogniti stood for had any bearing on the apparently amoral tone of the libretto. None of it has anything to do with this production so I’ll skip it.

Like staging itself, sometimes they [the dancers] mirror the action, but more often they offer related, alternative paths: a ‘why’, a ‘what if…’, (from same as above)

They do, I guess, but always as a not particularly original or coherent afterthought. First draft?

Throughout history, what has been more pornographic, in any number of senses, than the desire not only to watch but also to write such ‘stories’? Is that not part of what Poppea is? All the while, even whilst we are caught up in its detail, in enjoyment thereof, we, like the selected dancer-in-rotation as focal wheel of fate (Fortuna), know how things will turn out – even if we have forgotten. (from same as above)

Yes to the first part – and I certainly would’ve traded the incessant spinning for more of the reality TV backstage stuff being projected – but can we for once live in the now instead of always thinking about how things turn out? Isn’t that why we indulge in entertainment?

If you’ve ever wondered what’s behind that cliff I kept yapping about.


  1. I’m aware that’s usually what is going on in contemporary art museumes these days but I don’t consider it a good thing. 

Drop the bass

How cool – the ETO blog isn’t half bad. Check out their entry about ground bass in Monteverdi, before and thereafter. For those (like me) non-musically trained I’m not going to explain the term because the blog does it really well and gives cool examples.

Interesting things ETO does this Autumn around the UK:

Radamisto

Dido and Aeneas + more (Purcell, Carissimi and Gesualdo)

and others.

2018, the Summer of Poppea

This is a pretty good account of what went down in Zurich (re: Poppea). (From my seat in my Mum’s kitchen) I’m not very convinced by those projections either but I do like the rounded stage idea, with the displaced balcony box spectators at the back.

Like I said in the Carmen post, I’m not sure I care so much about being physically super immersed in the action as long as the acting is convincing and the production clear and coherent. I can draw my own Poppea/Carmen/Tito etc. parallels, thank you. But I doubt I could’ve forked out the money for those seats, anyway (though maybe you got discounts for having the public watch you as part of the action… but it looks like they’re not always there? whatever it was).

In any case, David Hansen vs. Kate Linsdey ultimately seals it for me.

ps: pregnant Poppea = yes.

Quote Christie: the most wonderful music in the world

After listening to the Poppea radio broadcast, some things clarified.

(What a serious distractions visuals can be…)

Christie is going real old school – not (never, with this rep) a criticism, just an observation. For the past week I’ve been listening to Jacobs (Paris, 2004) and Egarr (Enescu Festival, 2015). Whilst each of the three does interesting things – and we can thank Monteverdi for leaving so much up to interpretation! – Christie is, strangely, in this context, the most dramatic. I’m talking especially about Addio, Roma – really good tension on the monochord theorbo (I think) that sets Ottavia’s heartbroken goodbye – and Nerone’s meltdown – mayhem! 😀

And, strangely again, whilst the background is so old school, we have non-Baroque specialists, who – especially Yoncheva – bring a very different feel to it. I think we’re past puritanical obsessions and can appreciate a bit of a mix.  It’s heartwarming to see non-specialists insist on having roles like these in their repertoire. It surely brings them to the attention of the general public.

Strictly technically speaking, Alder is at this point my favourite Poppea, and I would love to see her in a staged production (sooner rather than later), paired up with a mezzo who won’t be drowned – or with a conductor who can direct her well.

However, Yoncheva has a very nice range for this role, with some warm and almost dark plunges into the lows, whilst Alder stays within a brighter timbre. When she’s not rushed, Yoncheva can produce pleasant trills. And it’s really lovely hearing her sing along Lindsey.

The more I listen, the more I’m impressed with Lindsey’s performance as Nerone. That meltdown is something else! But even better (and stylish) are her trills, which I had not rated particularly high in the past (re: Sesto in Paris against Gauvin’s Vitellia). We’ve also got range, from a handsomely vigorous dark mezzo to those goofy “wicked Nerone” higher pitched incursions. I think it’s also a rep in which she doesn’t have to force at all (tempo included), so more colours and possibilities open. I would be very happy if she explores more of the same.

Comparing the three, I would say Jacobs makes it the most hip-sounding (bot not necessary HIP), Egarr’s is cembalo-driven and Christie brings out some startling details. It’s how I remember his Cesare – he plays with this music; it’s not about playing it correctly – because it’s not hard to do so – but it’s about having fun with it. The above mentioned theorbo and the cornetti (where others didn’t seem to have used them), as well as the ensemble at the end of Act III really stand out.

It’s interesting that he mentions Harnoncourt starting off HIP then moving on, because I would say this is more or less what he’s doing here, collarborating with non-specialist singers. You get to a level like Salzburg, so what are you going to do? Salzburg wants “cool” but also it wants its big stars who will draw the posh crowds. But that’s not a bad thing, like I said. The more posh audiences get used to small kvlt bands playing 17th century operas and big stars joining enhusiastically, the better. We shouldn’t keep Monteverdi to ourselves, the whole world deserves to know and learn to appreaciate these wonderful operas.

Poppea is such a great achievement because it’s basically a lossely sung play. In that way it’s very modern, but those loosely sung parts are more alluring than similar later efforts. I always marvel how he causes language to purr without modifying its cadence at all. It makes me think we should all sing to each other instead of simpy talking and find our own languages’ inner music.

Also mad props to Busenello for such a tight libretto (another reason why you should employ an actual poet instead of writing it yourself). Every character has a distinctive voice and then there are the simply rendered but keenly observed interactions between people. This is the kind of music where a slightly modified inflection makes all the difference. After listening to Monteverdi I invariably say to myself “Were I a singer, I would want to sing this all the time.” And if I were musically inclined, I have no doubt this it the kind of thing that would’ve made me decide on pursuing even an “amateur career” in singing.

Now that I re-listened, I’m still firm in my opinion that Vistoli has a way to go before he gets on a level with Iestyn Davies as far as Ottone is concerned. Having spent a few days revisiting Davies’ Ottone, I can say without issues that he is my favourite countertenor Ottone. I used to like his Glyndebourne E pur io torno qui a lot, but he actually improved for the Enescu Festival. That aria and his performance in general in that concert is very possibly my favourite from a countertenor ever, I am surprised to say. It’s just flawless, stylish and perfectly pitched emotionally. I’ve seen him many times but that is it for me. I should put it on YT, I don’t think it’s up for our enjoymentit is! It occurs to me that I have actually seen him sing Ottone back in 2014, but I guess I didn’t know any better… I wish I could see him now.

However, after this perhaps unflattering detour and unusual Davies worship, Vistoli’s tone is easily recognisable and very likable. He’s quite mezzo-ish, bypassing the all too common bleat of many countertenors. I can see why Christie picked him and it could be interesting to see how he develops.

When speaking about “the darkness of Baroque”, Lauwers seemed quite interested in the character of Seneca as the moral compass of the opera. He said he would like an older singer, with possibly a ruined voice for this role (Visse was waving from the side, trying to get his attention 😉 ) but I suppose Christie called up a very young bass-baritone who (intelligence says) appeared worried how he’d come off. Well, given the low set technical bar, he needn’t have worried. Kidding, he was fine. Who cares about Seneca, anyway, beside as a butt of jokes? But I guess Lauwers doesn’t quite get what a “gone” voice sounds like; it’s often the darkness that’s gone, and without darkness you’re not going to have Seneca centre the opera. It’s all good, because this production is hardly centred.

L’incoronazione di Poppea or sex vs the oversized crown of rarefied intellectualism (Salzburger Festspiele, 12 August 2018)

see and be seen before the show

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.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele

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.

see and be seen in the swanky lobby

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.

see and be seen at the interval

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

there is grand and then there is Salzburg Grand

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?

Poppea, Popeea, why am I stuck with Mr Hankey? © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele

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.

the VR stuff only makes sense (such as it does) if you see it for yourself, so let’s just have another still of PopNer at it

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.

Drusilla getting a bit too excited © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele

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

(click on the picture for the trailer)

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.

Cantiam, cantiam, Lucano! © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele

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.

Poppea: get off Nerone, you little twink!

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 😉 ).

see, nice composition but WTFever to the blob in the background © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele

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.

In conclusion:

so I posted it before, are you complaining? (let’s run the credits again: © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele)

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).


  1. Guess what, gentle reader? It was hot in Salzburg, too! Haha. 
  2. Must get the sponsors right 😉 they “paid” me with sandwiches and coffee, after all. 
  3. And exceptionally clean toilets. 
  4. Me, like Roman characters? You don’t say. 
  5. 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? 
  6. Giulia saw her as Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlo and thought she wasn’t yet ready for that.