Monteverdi – L’incoronazione di Poppea

Opéra National de Paris – Palais Garnier, February 17 2005

Conductor: Ivor Bolton. Production: David Alden. Poppea: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Nerone: Jacek Laszczkowski. Ottone: Christophe Dumaux. La Fortuna/Drusilla: Miah Persson. Ottavia: Monica Bacelli. Seneca: Robert Lloyd. Arnalta/Nutrice: Dominique Visse. La Virtù/Venere: Lucia Cirillo. Amore: Valérie Gabail. Pallade/Damigella: Jaël Azzaretti. Valletto: Barry Banks. Lucano/Primo soldato Pretoriano: Guy de Mey. Liberto/Secundo soldato Pretoriano: Topi Lehtipuu. Mercurio/ Littore: Antonio Abete. Soloists of the Freiburger Barockorchester - Monteverdi-Continuo-Ensemble.

Mixed singing, but entertaining farce

How things have changed in the past 30 years: the last time Poppea appeared at the Palais Garnier, in 1978, the cast included Jon Vickers, Gwyneth Jones, Christa Ludwig, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, in togas and surrounded by columns. 15 years ago, the opera was usually set in Mussolini’s Italy, with art deco palaces and leather coats, brutal cynicism, and humour delivered through grimly gritted teeth. The present production, gaily billed by the Opéra National as “new” though dating from 1997, is a post-modern, cartoon farce and has divided the critics, in one of those “can they really have been there on the same night?” moments:

“You wonder, as you leave this show, what aberration could have led an opera so evidently imbued with all the finesse, the eroticism, the subtlety even in the crudity of the text, the versatile aesthetic of the Italian renaissance, to inspire those responsible for the sets and costumes with such hideous images and the director with such vulgar, superficial stage business.” Altamusica.com.

But also:

“I must say I do not understand why the Paris critics seem, as for the Flute at the Bastille, to have passed the word round to shoot this production down in flames (the same phrases can sometimes be found in several reviews…). This is pack mentality, far removed from any genuine critical thinking. The second-night audience, on the other hand, gave the production a triumphal reception. Rightly so.” Concerto.net.

Well, I enjoyed it.

The colour scheme was bright, fluorescent lime greens, pinks and purples. The first set was a vast curved wall of pink tiling, with a street light for outside scenes, a chandelier for inside, huge revolving doors representing scene changes, and a red sofa bed that came in handy for various bits of business. In part two, we had a dark, mobile, corrugated wall with multiple doors for coming and goings and sometimes a 30s desk. In part three, bright yellow and black cartoon expressionism, with desk and filing cabinets, followed by a dramatic, black and white op-art backdrop for Ottavia’s farewell and, with nine chandeliers lowered down, Poppea’s “triumph.”

The gender bending in the piece was played up. Dominique Visse’s Arnalta was a short, skinny Dame Edna figure in da-glo dresses and big, plastic hair – by the time of his big “Oggi, oggi sará Poppea” now as purple as his glittery frock; alternately, he was a comic-strip nurse in white with red crosses. Ottone, to do his “deed,” donned Drusilla’s prim, fifties suit, bun, winged glasses, stilettos and all. Nerone was played by a male soprano, swathed in gorgeous Indian silks and looking very strikingly like Helmut Berger as queen Ludwig: mad, bad, dangerous to know.

Seneca was an ageing writer in suit and glasses, downing whisky, but his followers were Tintin-esque schoolboys with orange quiffs, blue blazers, lavender shorts, yellow socks and big, thick specs. The tribunes acclaiming Poppea had clowns’ long, red noses and make-up; the guests at the party – adult “cherubs” in huge, pink, ballooning pants and wings – were all drunk. That, it seems, is when Poppea, played as a stylish vamp by the wonderfully stylish Antonacci, realised the whole thing was a farce: her face throughout the acclamation was sour – and as she and Nerone sang their final, famous duet, they slowly backed away from each other.

Vocally, though there were few weaknesses (except Cupid; but for some reason Cupid is always sung by a voiceless wonder), there was little homogeneity. Antonacci was her usual dramatic, acerbic self and she and the excellent Robert Lloyd made the most “traditional” operatic sounds of the evening. Miah Persson was charming and vivacious and Mozartian; Christophe Dumaux, her Ottone, had charm, too, but as is often the case with counter-tenors, was under-powered for a full-size house. Jacek Laszczkowski, singing at soprano pitch, was a good deal better than you might have expected, with powerful top notes and artful ways of disguising his lack of power in the lower range as madness intent on evil. Dominique Visse needs no introduction or description: he’s Dominique Visse, period.

It was a particular pleasure to see Barry Banks and Topi Lehtipuu again. In case the names have slipped your mind, Banks is the high (in tessitura; unfortunately, for his career prospects, not at all in stature) tenor who sings the Astrologer in the Châtelet DVD of Rimsky’s Golden Cockerel and had good reviews in Ermione in New York; Lehtipuu, for those who have the DVD of Les Troyens, also from the Châtelet, is the excellent, musical young lyric tenor who sang Hylas so beautifully – and whom I hope we’ll all be able to see soon in a DVD of Rameau’s Les Paladins.

From where I was sitting, the instrumental ensemble, bristling with the long necks of giant lutes, burbled away agreeably but indistinctly, drowned out occasionally by the organ. Monica Bacelli’s grainy, smoky, veiled mezzo was genuinely moving in Ottavia’s final scene, in plain black against the huge “Vasarely” space – the only one, really, where tragedy was allowed to take over. Elsewhere, it was always mocked by comedy. That, perhaps was the weakness of the production, but Poppea will be produced again in other ways, after all.

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