An emperor falls madly in love and makes others suffer: L’incoronazione di Poppea as a Gesamtkunstwerk
A tyrant falls in love with an attractive woman. Together they eliminate everything that might in any way impede their desire: their former marital partners, and also the voice of reason. Passion claims victims. In these golden years of streaming, this could be the plot of a popular series, but as an opera the subject has already been around for almost 375 years. Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is a work that does not immediately correspond to our moral principles. Monteverdi therefore refrains from giving any psychological explanation of the abominable behaviour of Nerone and Poppea.
Anyone wishing to stage this darkly fascinating musical drama is taking up a real challenge. Jan Lauwers has dared to tackle Poppea, however, with a premiere at the Salzburger Festspiele on Sunday. Markus Hinterhäuser has once again entrusted the directing of an opera to a visual artist. And his experiment has so far been a success: last year William Kentridge let an overwhelming storm of moving images loose on Wozzeck. Romeo Castellucci opted for the opposite extreme and provided Samole with some pared-down but very well chosen images. And for his opera debut, Jan Lauwers goes entirely for the power of the language of the body.
This Flemish artist set up a gigantic tableau of naked people on the gently raked stage of the Haus für Mozart. Sarah Lutz, the solo dancer from Needcompany, and 17 performers from the SEAD (Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance) find themselves in a heap of bodies. Lauwers very deliberately uses this human material as a living commentary on the action. The dancers re-transpose into gestures and body images the affects that Monteverdi had converted into sound.
It already begins in the prologue. Like shadows, cripples on crutches follow the gods Fortuna, Virtù and Amore as they squabble. In this way, virtue, love and good fortune become imperfect and their influence on people is diminished. Human victims are later prepared with ketchup, muscular youngsters match themselves against each other in the ring, and a live camera transmits hazy images in the style of a shocking ‘making of’. The anagram ‘Roma / Amor’ appears on a board like a super-motto.
One of the tableaux vivants makes a lasting impression: ten sparsely-clad dancers gather artistically around Poppea and lie down on a bed with her. When her cuckolded husband Ottone tries to commit suicide, this heap of people comes to life and like lightning transforms itself into an insurmountable obstacle.
Jan Lauwers questions the conventions of opera
In the course of a performance that lasts at least three and a half hours, Lauwers presents countless choreographic ideas, some of which however remain unsolved puzzles. The SEAD dancers give the production a vigorous physicality that radiates strength. In this way, Lauwers comes very close to the essence: doesn’t everything revolve round the power of Eros, blinding desire, the passion that sweeps aside all reason and good sense?
This Flemish artist, together with Needcompany, once broke down the conventional notion of theatre – also at the Salzburger Festspiele; in this instance he is looking for the most direct form of Gesamtkunstwerk, with dance, music and theatrical acting.
William Christie is responsible for the musical element of this all-round spectacular. As a specialist in the realm of Early Music, he concerns himself with a score that offers its performers more freedom than virtually any other in the almost 400-year history of opera. Nowadays, what Monteverdi left us would be viewed as a good-quality piano piece. William Christie has opted for an ensemble of 16 players in two orchestra pits in the middle of the stage, which makes them an active element in the performance as a whole.
The way the ensemble Les Arts Florissants, perfectly trained in historical performance, play Monteverdi’s music on lutes, recorders, cornets and an organ is both varied and vivid. At its heart is the continuo: hardly any of the recitatives are like any other, and the instruments regroup themselves very quickly. The conductor relinquishes the idea of conducting throughout, preferring to drive the musical flow onward from his harpsichord. And yet it always sounds exceptionally fluent.
In this way, Christie provides the singers with the perfect foundations. Due to the excellent acoustics of this venue, every nuance could be heard perfectly clearly. And it’s all a matter of listening attentively to this succession of baroque vocal hits.
Let’s start with the main characters: as Poppea, Sonya Yoncheva embodies supreme sensuality. This Bulgarian soprano with her all-round voice feels perfectly at home in both Verdi and Monteverdi. This results in an almost endless source of timbres and nuances, but also in luxuriant, room-filling volume. Poppea envelops the question ‘Tornerai?’ in divine, sighing legato lines. And of course Nerone will return. This woman knows exactly what she wants and how to get it.
William Christie conducts a vocal feast
Emperor Nero is a completely different character: unpredictably going to extremes, intoxicated by power and sex. Lauwers and Christie opted to have a woman play the part of Nerone. Kate Lindsey is brilliant in a star role with an intense vocal performance and outstanding acting talent. The way this American performer is able to deliberately make her svelte and dreamy mezzo voice descend into viciousness and then expose the depths of her character is truly impressive; just as impressive as her angry looks.
Yoncheva and Lindsey also give a unique performance in the two long duets in the third act. The finale, ‘Pur ti miro’, is simply out of this world; both of them make their declarations of love in such a multifaceted and moving manner.
The Salzburger Festspiele requires not only perfect casting for each part, but also a unique vocal performance too. The explosive Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Empress Ottavia and counter-tenor Carlo Vistoli as Ottone form a striking anti-couple. Both emphasise the development of their characters at the technical vocal level too, from an initial noble charm to vengeful rage.
As the victims of the whole affair, they discover their dark sides. Ottavia drives Ottone on to murder Poppea. He receives the support of Drusilla – Ana Quintan’s subtle soprano voice is a real revelation – but the plan is a failure. Nerone banishes all three of them from Rome.
Another victim is the philosopher Seneca, whom Nerone compels to commit suicide. Renato Dolcini coaxes the necessary clarity in song-form from his powerful baritone voice and, enveloped in a futuristic spiked outfit by Lemm&Barkey, guarantees a profound insight into the soul of a man destined to die. With their pure young voices, Lea Desandre and Tamara Banjesevic made one and all prick up their ears during the gods’ prologue. And the Ammen duo – Dominique Visse and Marcel Beekman – were certainly comical.
So this was a real vocal feast, even in the most minor roles. The audience at the premiere cheered the singers and William Christie and his musicians. As far as Jan Lauwers is concerned, opinions were divided. The director received satisfying approval, but also had to endure some obvious booing. An opera production that leaves no one cold: could there be any clearer sign that this regal discipline combining all the art forms is alive and well?
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