Monteverdi et al - L'incoronazione di Poppea

Opéra de Lille, Sunday March 18 2012

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm. Production: Jean-François Sivadier. Sets: Alexandre de Dardel. Lighting: Philippe Berthomé. Costumes: Virginie Gervaise. Poppea: Sonya Yoncheva. Nerone: Max Emmanuel Cencic. Ottavia: Ann Hallenberg. Ottone: Tim Mead. Seneca: Paul Whelan. Drusilla: Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Nutrice/Famigliare di Seneca: Rachid Ben Abdeslam. Arnalta: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Fortuna/Venere/Pallade: Anna Wall. Valetto/Virtù: Khatouna Gadelia. Mercurio/Console: Aimery Lefèvre. Damigella/Amore: Camille Poul. Littore/Famigliare di Seneca /Console: Patrick Schramm. Lucano/soldato/tribuno/Famigliare di Seneca: Mathias Vidal. Liberto Capitano/soldato/tribuno: Nicholas Mulroy. Actor: Rachid Zanouda. Le Concert d’Astrée.

I was too late booking for Poppea in Lille, so we found ourselves on folding wooden seats (creaking ones, too, when occupied by fidgets) on the second row of the topmost tier, just below the rim of the dome and well to one side. As a result, when the people in the row below weren’t leaning too far forward, we had a plunging view of a triangular section of the stage, no more. In the circumstances I’m not sure what I can say about the production, having only seen parts of it. It should, I believe, end up available on TV and online and possibly on DVD as well*, so maybe I’ll form a clearer idea then.

Acoustically, however, Lille’s sumptuous opera house is excellent, so even up in the “gods” we had no trouble hearing. Never, I think, have I been at an opera performance where the vocal range, in terms of skill, experience and result, was so gapingly wide: from near-student unsteadiness – the uneven, near-chaotic opening threesome, the contrast between one very good guard and one less so, etc - to Ann Hallenberg’s “glorious mezzo” (FT) and every gradation between. A diplomatic, not to say charitable, person might say: that way you get lots of different colours. True, but the bag was a bit too mixed for me.

Ann Hallenberg, if she ever stumbled upon this blog, would probably not thank me for saying it, but she stood head and shoulders above her colleagues, vocally and – no doubt in part because of the director’s choices – dramatically. As those who know her singing will expect, she was an outstanding Ottavia. A pity, then, that just as we were drinking in deep draughts of her first big number, a thunderous clattering of those folding seats, with the inevitable shushing and all the rest, broke out as a woman took ill on our balcony and fled. Fortunately we were able to hear the farewell in peace. “Glorious mezzo” indeed and the best Ottavia I’ve ever had the privilege to hear. I’m now keeping a close eye on the web site of the Vlaamse Opera to be sure I get better seats (fixed ones I hope, and upholstered) for Agrippina.

This was the first time I heard Max-Emmanuel Cencic live, so I’m in no proper position to judge, but it seemed to me the part sat high for his voice. As his character was played for plain petulance rather than any subtlety, I was willing to accept that very grainy timbre, turning almost to a tearing sound at the top, but my neighbour wasn’t, describing it baldly as “shrieking,” though admittedly powerful. I (and he) preferred Tim Mead’s less spectacular, less idiosyncratic but ultimately more satisfying Ottone.

Funny though it may sound to some, I don’t find Poppea’s part especially memorable, so although Sonya Yoncheva’s voice is very beautiful indeed I don’t recall much about it. I’ll retain Paul Whelan’s name (which I already knew) as that of one of those basses whose deep, cavernous voice is remarkable for emerging from such a young, slim frame. The rest of the cast was asked to do more “character” singing (“coached into ‘expressive’ - for which, read lumpy - phrasing and encouraged to shout" according to the FT) than subtle. I wondered what “lumpy phrasing” meant but noted, on the spot, that it came “in short pants” as the saying goes.

Personally I found the orchestral sound somehow lacking (unlike the voices) in contrast and range of colour, and the playing rather placid, but this was a Sunday matinee so maybe some doziness was to be expected.

Like the recent Dido in Paris, the production started up before the music, with singers milling round in mufti and chatting to one another at some sort of pre-rehearsal drinks party. Only gradually did it turn into a costumed performance. The guards, for example, were at first in dark suits. Then, starting to “go Roman”, they hitched up their trouser legs and tied the jackets round their waists. Only later did they reappear in actual Roman leather skirts, sandals and helmets. Stagehands wandered here and there doing things very much like the stagehands in Dido (something some critics found unnecessarily distracting) and Ottavia was clearly visible in a green room at the back, reading a newspaper as she waited for her cue.

The characterisation, like the voices, was a mixed bag. Most of the roles were played (in gaudy costumes) for laughs, or at least light-heartedly, the nurses especially so as usual; and Nero was “standard brat”. Yet Ottavia, usually played plain stoic and indeed, in this production, monumentally dignified, finally gave way to mounting fury at her repudiation and trashed the palace before bidding adieu. The contrast between her and Nero did have you wondering however they got paired in the first place. The answer was not given in the brief, grim historical recital made by an actor before that famous final duet, reminding us that the idyll was, in fact, short-lived, c.f. Wikipedia: “The cause and timing of Poppaea's death is uncertain. According to Suetonius, while she was awaiting the birth of her second child in the summer of 65, she quarrelled fiercely with Nero over him spending too much time at the races. In a fit of rage, Nero kicked her in the abdomen, so causing her death”. Like the strange, unoperatic noises that broke out between scenes, this spoken interlude was unexpected; unlike those noises, it was, after so much camping around, effectively sobering.

Photos from the trip.

* Added in 2013: it made a very successful DVD indeed.


  1. The video proves what a bad view I had: it was Nutrice reading the newspaper, not Ottavia.

  2. It is, by the way, very, very good on video and Ann Hallenberg is simply stupendous, putting in a performance of a kind you only rarely have the privilege to see and confirming, to me, that she's one of the best and probably THE best "baroque" mezzo out there today. Not for nothing is my blog called, albeit jokingly, "We left at the interval". Opera-going is an expensive and often thankless hobby, but it’s for the likes of Ann Hallenberg in these rare moments of perfection (music and drama) that we go on selling our grandmothers to take out our subscriptions.

    Anyone who gets a chance to see and hear her in their vicinity should just grab it. The show will be available for six months on Arte Live Web, but let's hope a Blu-Ray comes out and we can have it for keeps.


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