Ego-Tripping and Murder set to Baroque Music
Tom Janssens - De Standaard (13 August 2018)

In the first opera he has directed, Jan Lauwers applies his visual narrative style to the immoral plot of L’incoronazione di Poppea. The dance, acting, music and images are so well interwoven that the inevitable question is: where does Monteverdi end and Needcompany begin?

Last weekend, a typing error in a tweet sent by Donald Trump once again led to some hilarity. The American president had intended to type ‘text messages’, but it came out as ‘text massages’. Quite comical, but what makes this blunder tragic is that it became more important than the message. After all, what was the tweet all about? For a while that was no longer so important.

How do you deal with a political leader who opts for intuition rather than diplomacy? The fact that criticism or indignation have no effect on a self-proclaimed genius who is constantly causing chaos is demonstrated quite distinctly in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

There is a scene in this opera, written almost four hundred years ago, in which Seneca tries to talk the Emperor Nero round, an emperor who is madly in love. The old philosopher argues that emotions have no legitimate place in politics. A mistake. The answers Nero throws back at him could quite easily be Trump tweets. ‘Someone who can do what he likes needs no arguments.’ Or else: ‘Reason is the rule for those who obey, not for those who command’.

It is no coincidence that it is in this Trump era that the Salzburger Festspiele exceptionally put Poppea on the bill once again. The historian Philipp Blom, who gave the official opening speech at the festival, outlined what happens when prejudices and feelings win out over critical thought. His analysis was: ‘We move in the wings of the Enlightenment like actors with the wrong script and in the set of a play that ended long ago.’

It was approximately like this, with an eye to worlds and images that brush against each other, that the Needcompany director Jan Lauwers staged this Poppea in Salzburg. Monteverdi’s opera is an unsettling narrative, a story where love triumphs over reason and in which the readiness to let nothing stand in one’s way has become a means of survival. Lauwers makes sure there is no misunderstanding: such old values as Virtue and Good Fortune are on their last legs and the stage is a cemetery full of bodies.

But opera that deals with the business of the day does not really have to be updated. Lauwers’ directing is not like a sombre lesson in morality; on the contrary. To the rhythm of the magnificent music he presents baroquely mobile, pastel-coloured and sensual group tableaux in which singers and dancers are constantly running into and rubbing up against each other. Beneath the fine surface there is friction, however, because those who are not caressed or fondled have to endure aggression or derision.

In this setting, the main characters try to catch up with their gut feelings. Sonya Yoncheva is superb as Poppea, the hedonistic but calculating mistress who cannot allow herself to put a foot wrong in her advance towards the throne. While simulating ever creamier tones, Kate Lindsey lets loose as a snapping and snarling Nerone. Stéphanie d’Oustrac is overwhelming as the deceived Empress Ottavia who, faced with her downfall, combines sorrow with fire and fury.

In his orchestra pit, William Christie decided against conducting every note. He preferred to leave the initiative to the singers, even though this sometimes led to some untidiness in the ensemble work. But this loss meant a gain in spontaneity and empathy. It yielded an always lively, impulsive and therefore also free performance that was smoothly aligned with Needcompany’s visual language. The leitmotif here was the spinning body, a symbol of the baroque trance and physical excess, but also a good metaphor for a society with an appetite for experience in which everyone thinks that everything revolves around their own self. So it is a lesson for the audience after all.

For three and a half hours Lauwers remained true to the theatre aesthetics of his world, even though this meant breaking away from the feeble tradition that obliges opera directors to lead up to the finale with a few striking, summarising images. Didn’t happen. For which Lauwers was rewarded with a mixture of delighted applause and booing. In the light of the logic of Salzburg this is at any rate a sign that this production was a great success.

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