[“Well, let’s set the scene… have we been drinking?” – Jennifer Larmore (Ottavia), with Marcel Beekman (Nutrice), channeling an impressive Blanche Devereux in Claus Guth’s staging of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea”, Vienna/TADW 2015. – Photo Credit: Monika Rittershaus (so this evening has one thing going in its favor already).]
Is it possible to make this opera unsexy?
What first drew me to this production was the splendid cast – in one evening, Valer Sabadus and Christophe Dumaux, plus Jennifer Larmore plus Alex Penda. What’s not to fangirl about? (fine, I would have preferred a mezzo Nerone, but that’s just because I’m shallow and very gay, and then again, Sabadus). To that, I had to add later the wonderfuly phrased Seneca of Franz-Josef Selig (talk about building an smooth line from diction. Fabulous Early Baroque mindset!), the warm and pleasing Drusilla of Sabina Puértolas and – my biggest personal surprise – the Nutrice of Marcel Beekman, and I don’t mean that it was shrill or campy or funny as it often is, I mean the simple sound of it – very well projected, supple and flexible. I wanted more Nutrice scenes, and will definitely be on the lookout for Beekman.
Staging-wise, I didn’t go in expecting a relevation – Guth’s 2006 “Figaro” for Salzburg may have been one (not in finding a 2000s version for it that tells you more about the opera at its core, but in showing an intriguing perspective and highlighting some of the emotional underbelly in a very Buddenbrooks manner), or his early “Dutchman”, but I’ve found the last productions of his that I have caught a bit on the lackluster and repetitive side. It’s always broody, in an increasingly heavy-handed way.
In this “Poppea”, I can agree conceptually with Guth’s take, focusing on romantic love being impossible, and sexual fulfillment as well, let along the two coming together. But is “Poppea”, while possible, the right vehicle for this angle? Particularly with the music of Nerone and Poppea screaming sensual fulfillment on all levels? Perhaps it would have worked with staging consequently against the surface impression and digging for subtexts, but as things were, it was mainly broody without actually brewing much along the way, fractured to the point of fraying.
The scene is set in a game show set in front of a news studio world map, with Virtù, Fortuna and Amor manning their respective pulpits and playing the mortals for the win. The lesser among them get played for cheap jokes at times (particualrly the Arnalta of José Manuel Zapata, who can do a far more differentiated portrayal), while the major ones are all showcases of happy-love-is-not-possible-in-this-world.
The famous first Nerone-Poppea exchange, with its feverish, languid phrases, starts with Poppea as a business-like dominatrix alone in bed. She plays Nerone to an end (the crown) and doesn’t (at least intially – Penda tries to establish an arc) care that he is just as little in it. The only thing in it, in fact, is the music. Nerone sits to the side, fully dressed and brooding, face buried in his hands. He is tortured, unable to connect to Poppea, fetishizing instead body parts or clothes. Their interaction is of that casual abusiveness that “Shades of Gray” so easily and dangerously purports: some unsafe breathplay here, some violence as the only form of phyisical contact there, without actually respecting the code of BDSM, using the imagery simply as a metaphor for ‘healthy’ loving having gone off-kilter. *yawn* It falls flat, like much of this evening: if deep emotion, if any connection is outlawed from the get-go, what height is there to fall from?
This scene was symptomatic for the evening – I had no idea it could be unsexy (let alone this unsexy), and again it is that infuriating shorthand of using a kink as a crutch, whereas the kinks could have been plenty sexy (even while tortured) if anyone would have cared to stage them well enough. If there is not even a spark of connection, how are we supposed to be invested in its impossibility?
It is telling that the biggest laugh of the evening was a campy Arnalta calling out for “Conchita!” in her sleep. It continues with Ottavia basically being a Blanche Devereux parody: very amusing, but mocking her own pain to a point that there is no pain to tell. Also, if everyone is tortured (Nerone, Poppea, Ottone…), it is not really a feature that could set anyone apart. Even Seneca (the aging news anchor?) seems afloat, long before he steps into the (actual) bathtub.
The most honest and rawest moment of the evening perhaps, is the scene following his murder, with Nerone and Lucano (to keep in mind: Rupert Charlesworth) unexpectedly connecting, exploring a attraction that suddenly sparkes with the vulnerability and senuousness that Nerone’s interactions with Poppea lack. The moment, of course, is crushed again because Nerone is unable to connect to anyone, but the audience was finally able to connect to the action since there was something to get broken, instead of being broken from the beginning.
Poppea, towards the end, turns into the bride in white, seeming more invested now, but Nerone, realizing that even with having constructed his perfect mistress and made her queen he still is unable to establish a connection to her – or anyone – (broody! tortured!! In case we had forgotten!) is so done with love and his lonely life (again, tortured!) that, after erring across the stage like two vocal solitaires during “Pur ti miro”, he first shoots a surprised Poppea, as the toy that did not function as he wanted it to, and then himself.
As I said: I can follow conceptually (if one allots Nerone the inner moral compass to make him broody in the first place), but it simply wasn’t a very entertaining or exciting opera evening, and the frustrating thing is that I believe it could have been that – both with the concept, that puts too much action and too much surface effect onto its baseline, and particularly with this cast.
Spinosi’s Ensemble Matheus is playing their best against the cool notion of detachment that pervades the staging, but even Spinosi and his crew cannot even out the lack of audience engagement with this evening. In addition, they are getting sidelined by broody spheric sounds (just in case we hadn’t uderstood that this evening is supposed to feel broody) in most of the scene transitions.
There was also another incarnation of my favorite Guthian pet peeve, the embodied interpreation of emotion. When Guth first (?) used a sign interpreter in his TADW Messiah, it was refreshing and added information. During this summer’s “Fidelio”, the overboarding Bauschian take on an Alter Ego of Adrianne Pieczonka’s fabulously boot-clad Leonore had me somewhere between amused and annoyed. Color me not surprised to find our three toga deities of “Poppea” turning into mime marionet players that move around the mortals as puppets on imaginary strings. Just having them present in the background now and then (or just have another feather of Amor’s wing feathers sail down) would have been enough to make that point a lot more stringently, despite Christophe Dumaux having the physical presence to pull it off. But to me, it was another unecessary “oh look! we are showing inner workings and interpersonal layers!”, executed rather ham-handedly.
I will from now on call it mimesplaining, for pretentious and overwrought pseudo-layering (having acted out another layer can work great – just think of Hans Neuenfels doubling this four lovers in his “Abduction” for Stuttgart! – but that means it would actually have to add another layer).
Vocally, the evening was a countertenor dreamboat. Valer Sabadus has the perhaps most beautiful male top register currently in the market, and as he warms up after a restrained first scene, his sound is dazzling throughout. But, as asked by dehggial (check out her review of the same night) with whom I had a chance to meet up in the intermission: does a Nerone need to sound beautiful? Should he, even? Is it, to paraphrase Anna Russell in her assesemnt of Wagnerian sopranos, a matter of a beautiful tone being “an absolute waste of time”? Or is it even something Nerone may have to counteract? Is he supposed to be serenly seductive? Sabadus throws himself in the conflicted role portrayal with gusto, but at times he may indeed sound like beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
Perhaps Sabadus’ superbly refined phrasing would have gotten more of a chance to shine in the part of Ottone (apart from the low tessitura), that gave Christophe Dumaux, who has always been a scene-stealing Tolomeo, not that much to work with.
Dumaux’s Ottone is, of course, sung beautifully, with dignity and empathy and – naturally, since it is Guth – also with brooding, but Dumaux has little possibility to show off his stage animal qualities. But his quiet moments of beating himself up about still being hung up on Poppea, of trying to have Drusilla be enough, are of an intensity where the “tortured” concept suddenly works because here is a character also on the textual level who actually is struggling with an ethical choice. Dumaux also gets to take off his shirt (no complaints) and appear in drag, with a lot of class (and enviable high-heel skills) that was a relief in an evening skirting cheap trans jokes.
The possibility of a larger inner conflict is sacrificed for a parody-layout when it comes to Ottavia – scenically, it’s a riot and a riveting performance, but if even Ottavia does not take herself seriously any longer, where is the point of it? Jennifer Larmore, possibly drawing upon innate Southern Belle skills, does an impressive over-the-top silent movie Blanche Devereux, drunk out of her wits to begin with and larger than life, just as Joan Crafword’s shoulder pads. It’s fun, but it doesn’t make for a very heartbreaking “Addio Roma” in the end (it does make for a fabulous Mommie Dearest murder order to Ottone, though).
Larmore’s voice has understandably taken dents with the years, but she is an intelligent singer with good stage energy who can act through passages that, in a more subdued style, would expose the (again: understandable) vocal limits she has to work with now. There are a few blind, hoarse spots in the lower middle register that made me take a few deep breaths in remembering her early 1990s recordings. Then again, I am grateful – and as Ottavia walked off with her suitcase, I asked myself how many times I will see Larmore again still – to have a singer-actress of her format on stage and if she can handle her dwindling material that well, so should the audience.
Alex Penda as Poppea was a curious experience – her voice is bigger and darker than this part by far and able to fill far greater houses, so there was a moment of restraint that perhaps translated into the detachment the staging was aiming at. She did not have much to sink her teeth into (disenchanted dominatrix is below her range level, really) and offered a more differentiated portrayal towards the end of the evening, with Poppea doubting her own intentions just as they are drawing tangibly close – again, when there was actually something at stake and not just scoffed at.
At various moments throughout the night, I wished that Poppea and Nerone had been cross-cast, with the gleaming, sensuous and somewhat aerial beauty of Sabadus’ tone embodying a come-hither Poppea, and Penda’s darker, more powerful, driven and complex sound portraying the tortured Nerone. Or any Nerone, really. In fact, this might be my biggest casting relevation to come out of this evening – someone hire Penda as Nerone?
[Franz-Josepf Selig (Seneca, and that was some selig singing indeed) and Emilie Renard (Valletto) in Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea”, Vienna/TASW 2015. – Photo Credit: Monika Rittershaus]
On of my favorite “Poppea” moments is the Damigella/Valletto scene – not just because it tends to be two women making vocal eyes at each other – and it was just the playful, sensuous scene I could have (but at this point barely dared to) hoped for. Emilie Renard (Cherubino, here we come) is the scruffiest, brattiest, most adorable baby dyke as Valletto, with her stage energy still a bit all over the place, but good chemistry, and beautifully balanced by Gaia Petrone’s teasing, but warm Damigella, who gets caught up in the moment just as much.
[Jake Arditti (Amor), dancing with the stars, Alex Penda (Poppea), dozing underneath. Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea”, Vienna/TADW 2015. – Photo Credit: Monika Rittershaus]
There needs to be an extra paragraph about the embarrassment of riches that is the TADW opera studio and TADW’s young artists’ casting. There is a lot of small parts in “Poppea”, and most of them were very pleasant surprises, not just in vocal, but also in physical presence, from Jake Arditti’s Jaroussky-channeling Amor (who could easily have been a dancer, too) to Natalia Kawalek’s restrained – though not in sound – Virtù, from the agile Soldiers (again Rupert Charlesworth, Manuel Günther) who sang even while brushing their teeth and shaving, to the above-mentioned Emilie Renard, who had to work against a hideous pair of body jeans and still came out looking cute.
All in all, a night of potential, if not follow-through – which, one could say, fit well with the concept of impossible fulfillment.