Baci mordaci: “Poppea” in Vienna

blanche and the maid[“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?

Oh brother.

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?

Valletto burning down the house

[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.

Dancing With The Gods[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.

14 thoughts on “Baci mordaci: “Poppea” in Vienna”

  1. i really love reading this, great details in staging and singing (given my recent “discovery” i could follow exactly every point you made too, with full imagination!) It’s also quite interesting to read 3 reviews (this, Dehggi’s, and Leander’s, not sure if you have seen this last one, it’s also quite an interesting read, trying to see the big psychological idea behind while overlooking all the busy-ness of ideas + stagings..). Makes me wonder how i would react, now having read 3 very details pieces.

    Yes on the idea of dark-voice soprano for Nerone! I’m quite amazed how well it comes off aurally! (i found another Nerone on tube, with Roberta Mamali (our Ginevra from Enescu’s A.Hallenberg’s Ariodante) as Nerone, and found her voice quite attractive in this role too (not so much yet the potrayal.. i have my bias now 😀 )


    1. Oh, I saw stills of that one – have a few saved away for a a WSM – but I have yet to see the production.
      I also read Leander’s review and thoguht it was great to have such differently focused takes on the same night (though with some common themes). I could get used to this! (Join us some time?)


  2. In regards to directors repeating themselves, I wonder if everyone, no matter how interesting once (and sometimes only that once), has a sell-by date. The rumour I got was that Guth was too busy with Salzburg and afterwards kind of coasted with this production. Which is really a shame, Poppea deserves one’s whole attention. I just re-watched his Salzburg FIgaro and it was very obvious that Poppea’s Amor was lifted from that one. Now I remember what was the other Strauss of his that I liked – the Zurich Ariadne.

    I don’t get why everybody and their grandma needs to make references to that insult to intelligence that is Fifty Shades? Why does anyone – who should know better, which is pretty much anyone over the age of 18, one would hope – allow this to be the base of conversation when it comes to sex in 2015? When it first came out my co-workers and I shat ourselves laughing whilst reading it out loud on Amazon during a night shift. Next thing you knew it was huge!

    Definitely agree that this is not the opera via which to make a case for the impossibility of fulfillment. It’s just too sexy at heart (quite possibly the sexiest). Also, I think it’s too subtle to get too extreme with, hence why Ottone, the least screwed with by direction, might’ve come out best.

    I agree that what with all the cross dressing it was a glaringly missed opportunity not to have Poppea and Nerone cross-played. Especially since Sabadus has proven he can portray a woman rather fetchingly.

    I too was happy I could catch JL on stage and was impressed with how she navigated her limitations. Who knows, when she “retired” the last time I thought that was that. There are still roles she can try (the Countess in The Queen of Spades?).

    I get the feeling the TADW is an excellent place to see very good up and coming singers.


    1. Yes, that Ariadne! I knew there was more of Guth’s earlier work I thoroughly enjoyed. Personally, I don’t mind dirctors having a signature aesthetic or issues/figurs they keep returning to as long as they bring something to the story and fit into it. I am so past mimesplaining, though.

      50 Shades would best never be mentioned again, but since it has turned into such a phenomenon I have decided to address and dismantle it whenever possible (and I don’t think that e.g. the Poppea scene would have loked the same without that drivel out there and so popular at the moment).
      Obviously, there is better porn for free out there (like GOOD fanfic), but every time I see that book in another respectable bookstore, or the myriad of equally bad rip-offs next to it, I could throw a fit.
      Of course whatever gets you off is your business (though one would hope it involves age of consent and, well, consent), but on a broader sociological level there is still a lot of need for a debate on how ingrained abusive patterns are into this society to have them eroticized in a Stockholm-syndrome fashion. Ugh, the times I have fought with – mostly older, mostly relating to men sexually – women celebrating the books as liberation of female desire! As if the (as you pointed out, involuntarily amusing) sex or the (badly misrepresented!) BDSM was the issue, and not the unreflected virgin sacrifice trope behind it, or the idealization of a completely unhealthy relationship. That damn book is glorifying patterns that still get women killed (I may feel somewhat strongly about it).

      Interesting to know that the Poppea might have been a half-steam thing in the wake of the Salzburg Fidelio, since that Fidelio didn’t win me over, either (despite Pieczonka in those boots, which, well…). I found it broody in a prententious way.


      1. Interesting you’re saying older women are finding those books liberating. I thought it’s younger women who go for that kind of celebrating my sexuality by being deliberately stereotypical. It’s made me feel old.

        I think in spite of everybody claiming to be on the fluid sexuality boat these days, people are regressing in regards to the ways they relate to each other sexually.

        Signature aesthetics quickly becomes cliche, though. I’m not saying reinvention isn’t hard but you’ve got to do it or let others do their thing (until that becomes cliched…).

        good fanfic is an interesting topic, especially considering how big Twilight and 50 Shades became. To think that out of all that good stuff this is what sold… might also say something about the publishing industry, which probably works in very similar ways to the music/film industry.


        1. yes – and in most industries (and when it comes to gender, I’d particularly add fashion): baseline to the point of offensiveness!
          As for the older women, it may simply be because I am more likely to end up talking to them? I don’t think I’ve gotten into it to the same extent with a younger woman. I did over Twilight itself (where at the moment, we can see how the same archaic patterns get celebrated by some crowds when they are switched in place, as if that would make them any better), although the most interesting discussion on that particular text I also had with an older woman who said she was invested in it for the detailed emotional scope allotted to the heroine and her inner proceedings – nevermind the positions being relived therein.

          I’m trying to pinpoint a line between having an aesthetic and becoming repetitive – still working on that one. I don’t think I’d go for “reinvention” (impossible?), but it’s it got to be about the story and developing from there, and not bringing a set of tried tricks (looking at you, mimes!!) to the story. Or, worse, to *any* story.


          1. it’s kind of sad that the said woman has not been exposed to more quality inner musings than the drivel in that book. I stopped reading after the first page (this one doesn’t even seem to be unintentionally funny). Don’t they call that a Mary Sue in fanfic?

            aesthetic/repetitive/reinvention… it’s difficult! but I still won’t let directors off the hook, expecially since they get so much attention these days.

            I do think sometimes you need to deliberately go out of your way to the point where things don’t work for a while as you fumble for the next phase of your creative life.


            1. Leaving your comfort zone is a good point, and good creative advice – and then the question would be how far house politics (especially in the bigger houses) allow for that, which brings us back to “mainstream drivel” in a sense of predictable, marketable productions with an equally predictable aesthetic as something houses are going for (not trusting their audience, I fear at times, to be capable of thought and growth on that matter).


            2. I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough about the inner workings of any opera house to know what drives them this or that way (aside from £££).


              I suppose the people who go to the opera once a year to see La Boheme/Figaro/Tosca/Traviata are easily pleased by the kind of production that does “what it says on the tin”. I’ve seen the long running Traviata and Figaro here and I enjoyed them for what they were. Would I have liked to see more out there productions? Perhaps, but you just know there will be another Figaro/Traviata next season or the season after next, whereas other stuff doesn’t come around that often so when it does it better be good. The house is always full for the very mainstream stuff, so the strategy works.

              Big houses also have a lot of tourists to bulk up the numbers of the audience. I only go to ROH once or twice a season as it’s too 19th century oriented. If they were targeting people like me the house would lose a lot of money 😉


  3. Anik, this is brilliant. I hope that you teach Re-Creative Writing. Such agility with description, allusion, and analysis. So many insights, evoking so many sensations. I feel that I have been with you at the performance, during the entr’acte gossip, and for the café seminar afterward. Many thanks for taking us along.
    In contrast: How annoying, that people still get away with pseudo-sophisticated denial that a work means what it says, or that characters feel what they enact. Irony requires a second idea, a hidden truth, as you say. Empty Life-is-Meaningless anomie is just lazy. Like mimesplaining. (Although a Bauschian version does sound energetic for the performer.) If emotion is merely gestural, why add actual gesturing? Perhaps to avoid imagining something that the singers can act.
    It could be interesting to suppose Nero and Poppea as identical narcissists projecting self-love onto each other, unable to break the mirrors that separate them. (Pur ti miro like this? Doubled?) Cross-casting would be helpful, particularly if they looked like twins. But if they start already beyond desire, Jenseits von Lust und Liebe, you’re right, why watch them go nowhere?
    The flat-affect concept seems especially irresponsive to a work notable for its position in the history of “Drama in Musica.” Removing the drama suggests not so much lack of effort as resentment, as though Les Arts Florissants performed the madrigals with their mouths duct-taped. May Guth be imposing his lack of passion for directing onto his productions? Repetition can enervate, and forced art, art without emotional sources, often becomes art about the declared inadequacy of art itself, the shallowness of engagement, shades of grey. The final murder-suicide (WHAT?) certainly conveys hostility, and the audience is fortunate to be assaulted only symbolically.
    Thanks also for your repeated recognition of BDSM as a culture and set of practices to be taken seriously in its own terms, not just a brand for Kinky in the increasingly pornographic entertainment/advertising culture. A culture that labors continuously to convince women that their individual, physical, emotional selves are the source of all fulfillment, the measure of all worth, important beyond any considerations of ability, career, or effect on society. Because this culture is one of unattainable fantasy, I think, many women feel their disappointment as failure; then they can be sold the notion that surrender will deliver them to fulfillment. (The equivalent male narrative hero is a weak sensitive civilized man attacked by psychopathic bullies and so released to murderous rage–and surprising competence. Marathon Man, Deliverance, Straw Dogs, etc. ad nauseam)
    I guess L’Incoronazione shows that this is how life works: desire and rage triumphant, virtue and thought extinguished, society expelled from the charmed circle of self-gratified power surrounded by troops. Like a season series ending of a Fox TV show. But Monteverdi never suggests that indifference is sufficient explanation, or response. That attitude can’t be called perverse–it isn’t energetic enough–but looks from here like the weariness of commerce in pleasure:
    When the moon so long has been gazing down
    On the wayward ways of this wayward town
    That her smile becomes a smirk
    I go to work. — staging opera?


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