Monteverdi – L’incoronazione di Poppea

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday March 12 2006

Conductor: René Jacobs. Production: David McVicar. Poppea/Fortuna: Carmen Giannattasio. Nerone: Malena Ernman. Ottavia/Virtù: Marie-Claude Chappuis. Ottone: Lawrence Zazzo. Seneca: Antonio Abete. Drusilla: Carla di Censo. Nutrice/Famigliaro: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Arnalta/Mercurio/Console: Thomas Michael Allen. Valletto/Amore: Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Damigella/Pallade: Mariana Ortíz. Lucano/Soldato/Console/ Famigliaro: Daniele Zanfardino. Liberto/Soldato /Tribuno: Fulvio Bettini. Littore/Famigliaro/Tribuno: Kai Uwe Fahnert. Concerto Vocale.

This production had a very mixed reception when it appeared in Paris. There were those who complained of déjà vu and more of the same and those who found it a logical “sequel” to McVicar’s previous staging of Händel’s Agrippina, as Le nozze might be staged as a sequel to Il barbiere. But more of the same didn’t daunt me, as to me Agrippina was great.

The underlying approach was the same: updating to a glamorous soap opera with a cast of celebrity slobs and no-one emerging spotless. As for the Händel, the set was vast and vaguely art déco, here a touch more sumptuous than sepulchral, with a hint of the style of France’s liner Normandie.

The basic elements were simple and luxurious: a billowing royal blue curtain scattered with gold insignia, not quite fleurs-de-lis, not quite bees; a royal blue mosaic floor; a large and elaborate gold-framed sofa, upholstered in button-back leopard print and tapering off to the right into a long, snaking tail; the serpentine theme was carried through to an occasional snake-footed bar stool and snake-like shapes projected on to the mosaic floor.

At the rear was a flight of blue steps across the full width of the stage, and the back wall was divided into vertical panels that pivoted individually or severally, giving a decent number of modular options; these were faced sometimes with art déco mirrors, sometimes oxidised copper, and had cool blue neon strips embedded in the edges for use during the seamier scenes. When all open, they revealed a giant, floor-to-ceiling reproduction of Bronzino’s well-known Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly in London. The metallic elements gleamed darkly in the always-dim lighting.

This sleekly decadent set was peopled, as I said above, with celebrity slobs, apparently born with a champagne glass glued into their hands: Nero a kind of Prince-cum-Michael-Jackson with dreadlocks, dangerously capricious, Seneca a media intellectual of the Bernard-Henri Lévy kind, Ottone a businessman in grey suit with a suit bag, Drusilla an efficient assistant in sharp tailoring, Poppea the rising whore, and a cast of handsome, feline young men in black: sheer black tee-shirts under black suits, hangers-on ready for anything, apparently with anyone.

There were similar, successful ideas to those in Agrippina: for example, in the latter, Nero made a cynical speech to the mikes and cameras; in Poppea, Seneca learns of his forthcoming death in a TV studio, while promoting his latest book on a literary talk show: his hosts and the cameramen freeze in deep blue light as Mercury appears in close-up on a plasma monitor and Seneca is caught in a bright spot. There were also some good comic moments: when Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a solid lass to say the least, managed the splits while tangoing with one of the ubiquitous lounge-lizards, a round of spontaneous applause went up.

However, in this Poppea, McVicar has mixed elements of slapstick in with the more “realistic” soap-opera, undermining our ability to take anyone seriously (Arnalta, for example, was in curlers under pink chiffon and bunny-rabbit slippers, like a Monty Python housewife); the realism was further undermined by the cast sometimes suddenly breaking into Bob-Foss-like dance routines – including bowler hats; and the refusal to allow any character to appear for a moment in a positive light tended at times to go against the music, which tells it otherwise.

Overall, it seemed to me that McVicar’s production heightened the sense of rambling inconsistency that to me is always a risk with Poppea, rather than tying it together into something more coherent. Though we’re all supposed to acclaim it as Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Jacobs seems to me more reasonable in stating clearly he sees it as an uneven, workshop piece by a team of composers, though still “one of the greatest operas of the 17th century”. I have always preferred Orfeo.

The Brussels cast was less star-studded than in Paris, but nevertheless gave a very musical, even, team performance – though I’ll put in an extra good word for the excellent Lawrence Zazzo as Ottone, battling gamely against the aura of deathly dullness his grey suit and briefcase gave him. Jacobs’ music-making in the pit was of the usual high standard.

This show may be a good candidate for a DVD. The possibility of “dipping in” would do away with the sense of incoherence got from watching all of the production at once, and the recording would bring the singers closer: though musical, they were, even at La Monnaie, rather distant-sounding. If it comes out, I might buy it. If it comes out with the Paris cast, I almost certainly will. But I’m still waiting for Agrippina

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