Monteverdi et al - L'incoronazione di Poppea

ONP Garnier, Sunday June 22 2014

Conductor: Rinaldo Alessandrini. Production: Robert Wilson with Giuseppe Frigeni. Sets: Robert Wilson, Annick Lavallée-Benny. Costumes: Jacques Reynaud / Yashi. Lighting: A. J. Weissbard, Robert Wilson. La Fortuna, Drusilla: Gaëlle Arquez. La Virtù, Damigella: Jaël Azzaretti. Amore: Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Ottone: Varduhi Abrahamyan. Poppea: Karine Deshayes. Nerone: Jeremy Ovenden. Arnalta: Manuel Nuñez Camelino. Ottavia: Monica Bacelli. Nutrice: Giuseppe de Vittorio. Seneca: Andrea Concetti. Valletto: Marie-Adeline Henry. Mercurio: Nahuel Di Pierro. Secondo Tribuno, Famigliare di Seneca. Salvo Vitale. Soldato pretoriano, Lucano, Famigliare di Seneca, Secondo Console: Valerio Contaldo. Soldato pretoriano, Liberto, Primo Tribuno: Furio Zanasi. Concerto Italiano.

Monteverdi
It’s a pity, to me at any rate, that Poppea comes round more often than Orfeo, but it's interesting to see how many different production styles all manage to make a go of it: Dynasty-style skulduggery in dark, sleek art deco settings; liquorice-allsorts/day-glo farce; thoroughly post-modern and streetwise, with everyone on the stage at once … It’s interesting, also, to see how many different kinds of opera Bob Wilson manages to make something of, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less. People disagree, of course, about the successes and failures: I liked his Ring, plenty didn’t.

Poppea doesn’t have to be semi-pornographic, though we’re now used to it being well sexed-up. There’s no actual sex prescribed in the libretto, as far as I remember; it’s only what modern directors and audiences read into it. This new Paris production has been criticised for being “refrigerated” in “50 shades of grey” as one reviewer cleverly put it, referring to Wilson’s usual subdued colour scheme while hinting at the absent sex: Poppea is a schemer, supported by Amore, but still an aspiring empress, not an outright tart. But that isn’t a complaint I’d make. In a way, Wilson’s staging is almost old-fashioned in simply telling the story as it appears in the libretto, in his characteristically formal, stylised way. And as this stately formalism has things in common with “HIP” theatrical practice – the supposed reconstitution of period gesture and movement, I mean – it suits Monteverdi’s score without distracting from it: you can concentrate on the playing and singing much more closely than in busier shows.

The production also, with its superbly-made “neo-period” costumes: plain, palest-coloured silks (lemon, lavender, very pale pink…), graphic black velvet (and sometimes stylised armour) for the men, and stiff, starched-lace standing collars; its cool, careful “signature” lighting and sparse but carefully-honed and handled sets, has the austere beauty of certain dark old masters. The action, as ever with Bob Wilson, is slow-moving. But I find I fall easily into the rhythm; and I was sitting near enough at the Palais Garnier to benefit in full from the work that had gone into facial expression: the batting of eyelids, the half-open mouth, the rolling eyes - of the nurses especially, hands on hips, heads cocked knowingly, swaying around with exaggerated swagger.

There were carefully-lit walls and openings that rose and fell, columns, grey or chromed, and once an obelisk, sprouting from the ground; a grove of saplings; a symbolic, suspended cypress and an archway for Seneca; and a neat labyrinth of low hedges, gliding in, for Poppea to fall asleep in against a starry sky with a rising sliver of crescent moon. The final prop was one large and crisply-carved (where not battered) Corinthian capital, sliding imperceptibly forward during the duet.

Somehow, though the modest ensemble, more continuo than orchestra, was undeniably “HIP” (and discreetly lovely), the musical options seemed old-fashioned too: a Mozartian tenor for Nerone, a mature voice for Poppea, and, with Ottone sung by a mezzo, not a counter-tenor in sight or, more importantly still, sound. No voiceless wonders, no hysterics; just good-to-excellent singing at Monteverdi’s service.

Karine Deshayes makes, as I said, a more mature Poppea, darker-voiced, than we’re now used to, often wonderfully musical, and vocally well paired with Jeremy Ovenden’s elegant tenor – elegant, but perfectly capable of heroism, as in his ringing duet with Lucano.

Monica Bacelli has been singing Ottavia for at least a decade now, which may explain why her voice seems to make quite different sounds at different pitches – or perhaps it was just mannerism? In this production, she’s a less sympathetic, less tragic victim than usual, so less moving, and perhaps the vocal mannerism was asked for by the directors. The nurses, Arnalta especially, were excellent character singers.

Varduhi Abrahamyan is a warm, sober, bronze-toned Ottone, thoroughly convincing both vocally and dramatically. She, too, was well-paired with the strongly contrasting, silvery yet full and rounded voice of Gaëlle Arquez as Drusilla: something of a revelation. In a strong cast (as I said, there were, for once, none of those voiceless wonders “early-music” conductors often appear to like – though I’ve been told I’m wrong about that: it’s all a question of timbre; some here were, however, better at the front of the stage than further away)... in a strong cast, as I was saying, they were undoubtedly the stars of the show.

I had a lovely evening – all the more so as, being at the end of a row and near an exit, I was first out at the interval and, for a few seconds, had Garnier’s grand foyer, in all its dimly-glowing, “candlelit” splendour, then the loggia facing the avenue de l’Opéra in the evening sunlight, to myself.

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