In Salzburg, Jan Lauwers presents Monteverdi’s later work L’incoronazione di Poppea as a revealing tableau vivant and a democratic incident on the stage.
There is a story about the genesis of this production and it goes like this: Markus Hinterhäuser, director of the Salzburger Festspiele, was walking through the old city centre of Salzburg, lost in thought. He wondered who could stage the opera L’incoronazione di Poppea for him. The piece is long and awkward, consists of lots of spoken passages and has a shocking storyline: the Emperor Nero falls in love with Poppea, who longs ardently for both him and the throne. As a result, Ottavia, Nero’s wife, is cast aside, and Ottone, Poppea’s ex-lover, is presented as the failed murderer of the future queen.
This is accompanied by plenty of superb music, but there are only a few passages that can be considered to be truly ‘moving numbers’. At the time, in 1643, the theatres were small and the orchestras even smaller; the singers were actually singing actors and the audience hung on their every word so as not to miss a single detail of the story being performed. And in this way Hinterhäuser’s thoughts drifted away from opera in the direction of theatre, and ultimately came up with Jan Lauwers. Lauwers had never previously directed an opera, but there is a first time for everything, even for a 61-year-old. Lauwers told Hinterhäuser that there was only one opera he had always wanted to stage, and that was Poppea. What a stroke of luck. So he would take on the job of directing this opera and after that he would never again become involved in music theatre. And judging by the numerous expressions of displeasure during the applause at the Haus für Mozart, it seems that a great many opera-lovers were much in favour of this definitive decision.
There was a time when Jan Lauwers and his Needcompany, established in Brussels in 1986, were a definite fixture at any international theatre festival. Lauwers is now an established figure and his importance is as a theatre-maker who wants to see independent individuals on the stage. His performers have absolute sovereignty over their own brains and their feelings, they do not hide behind their roles, and they also dare to dance and play music. The motivation for this is not any post-dramatic ideology, but purely the joy of experiencing the people he works with, especially his wife Grace Ellen Barkey, who designed the costumes for Poppea together with Lot Lemm.
But opera singers are not necessarily good performers. And Needcompany actors are not involved in this Poppea. For this production, the Salzburger Experimental Academy of Dance was engaged under the title ‘Bodhi Project & SEAD’. When Lauwers works with his own group, it can lead to grand panoramas that contain everything that makes man both splendid and terrible: joy and pride, fear, darkness, death. In this instance, it is sometimes no more than rather hippie-like storytelling in comical costumes. His staging of Poppea has a bit of both. Lauwers has created a veduta on the gently raked stage, a tableau of intertwined naked people, an image which, insofar as it is recognisable, originates more from the mediaeval canon than from the baroque period that was dawning in Monteverdi’s day. At the front of the stage there are two pits in which William Christie sits with a smallish group of musicians from Les Arts Florissants. They are superior specialists in Early Music and that means above all that they can play as an ensemble. In Monteverdi’s day, every musician was able to improvise, and since the available source material for Poppea is meagre and confusing, it is advisable to use the little material there is in the way musicians did at the time. Christie likes independent musicians; again and again one of them stands up in the course of the three-and-a-half-hour performance, with their recorder or lute isolates themselves from the lucid sound structure and becomes a soloist. Christie directs the expressiveness from his harpsichord; he stimulates the singing with continuo garlands. But not even he is able to outplay the lack of dramatic development in the music. The finale, the love duet by Poppea and Nero, is one of the most tender in the history of opera and is extraordinarily magical.
Lauwers’ dance group forms the stage set. It functions as a separate organism that makes eager use of a wealth of gestures and movements to provide a lively, empathically experienced background to the singers’ stories and actions. When two performers sing about love, the dance couples love each other; when Drusilla is threatened with torture, the dancers put their all into portraying torture and murder with plenty of stage blood. When Ottavia bids farewell to Rome and goes off into exile, one female dancer is raised up like a stele. When, under the protection of Amor, Poppea is lying down to rest, the dancers gather to form an idyllic tableau vivant reminiscent of the cover of an LP by Jimi Hendrix. This is not all purely illustrative, but keeps to its own rules and laws, which cannot always be fathomed: one male or female dancer can be seen revolving on a small platform in the middle of the stage throughout the performance. You would not be the first spectator to have been made dizzy by this.
And even if some sort of emotional esotericism lay behind it, the dancers essentially do the same as the musicians: they improvise under direction; although the parameters change as soon as Poppea appears for the first time. She has just come from a night of love with Nero, and Sonya Yoncheva makes play of every form of erotic lasciviousness. Her singing is pure vocal porn, and at this moment she can do what she likes, and what is more it is also astonishingly precise. At the same time she acts out the hunger for power and nestles voluptuously into the royal red cloak. However, when Poppea deviates from the line of her lamentations, Yoncheva’s provocative enchantment vanishes and her Nero takes it over. He is played by Kate Lindsey, who plays a woman, but not as a transvestite; with the appearance of the leader of a commune, cold and yearning in voice and action. From the role of gods to supporting roles, the choice of the whole cast is excellent. They all sing and act with great pleasure and dedication, making use of all the freedoms Lauwers urges them to take, improvising with the musicians and moving freely around the stage. And then it becomes obvious that sacrifices have to be made for this democratic action. Lauwers is not in the least interested in meaning or interpretation in accordance with prevailing norms. And that means his work is not very accessible, but it does make it great.
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