Monday, July 27, 2009

A Stunning Poppea from Glyndebourne

When Robert Carsen’s new production of Monteverdi’s final masterpiece “L'incoronazione di Poppea" opened at Glyndebourne last June, critical opinions were being thrown out fast and furious, each critic seemingly trying to outdo the next in a race to either laud or loathe the thing. Early on, Carsen had made no bones about, nor attempt to hide, how he and his production team were creating a Poppea "specifically for Glyndebourne" – and some critics took umbrage with it, variously accusing the director of “navel gazing” – “appealing to the lowest common denominator” and creating something worthy of no more than a “yawn and sneer at.” These critics were, if not all morons, at least moronic in reducing such a fiercely integrated, well thought out production into something too casually dismissed as unworthy of their time. Such reviews are worthy of less than a yawn or a sneer, for they, ultimately tell us nothing than we could have gleaned on our own by the headline (which often they didn't write in the first place). This new 2 DVD set from London (attractively priced around $20-$30) is more than worth the price of admission and allows the home viewer a glimpse into what the controversy was all about (plus several interesting extras, including interviews with some of the cast, Mr. Carsen and an appreciation of Maestro Leppard by Ms. Haim).

So, is this new Poppea perfect? Nope, but that doesn't matter. Michael Levine’s set was, for the most part, little more than miles and miles of red velvet drapery, covering nearly every square inch of the stage – at times even the floor - grew a mite wearisome and unrelenting. Carsen’s usage of it seemed predicated on several “wow” type of special effects, but I think (strongly) that the “wow” factor could be achieved, even more so by relieving our eyes of his perpetual crimson tide. Having said that, nearly every other aspect of this show bordered on the revelatory (and so in hindsight my complaint of “seeing too much red” – is somehow soften or diffused), giving us lots of meat to chew on in a tale most of us think we know well.

In the title role, opera’s latest “It Girl,” Danielle de Niese came under much fire for less than glamorous vocalism. Personally, I found her Poppea to be so well thought out, so uniformly excellent and complete that any vocal shortcomings (e.g., a wispiness/breathiness in the lower range) excellently employed into her assumption of the aspiring empress. She breathes a certain life into this woman and becomes a Poppea that is, for all her manipulative ways and ambition, the most vulnerable creature of the opera – which is a first for me. By her coronation scene and the final duet, de Niese’s face and body language register a woman who has made a long journey mostly of her own devising – and yet who appears fraught with terror at what should happen next, leaving the audience (or at least me) sympathetic to her plight.

The performance of the night (next to Maestra Haim) belongs to Alice Coote. She (and Carsen) have saddled this Nerone with a dangerous edge I’ve never witnessed in a female Nero before . Only Richard Croft (in the excellent, if chopped up production for the 1993 Schwetzinger Festival) has the same swaggering menace and sense of complete abandon of morals or care. Coote goes him one better in her handling of the last scene with Druisilla and Ottone, which here in Carsen’s hands plays out with a near Shakespearean theatrical quality.

Coote makes a terrifying Nero: her eyes as shifty as a feral cat, her body language a nearly amorphous assumption of androgyny – alternating a faux butchness that belies her sex one moment, and then going all alpha male on us the next. Her turn as Nerone is so complete, so fully integrated into a wholly believable character that in many reviews her vocalism went nearly unmentioned. It should not as the evening’s highest vocal honors are all hers. The voice is an amazingly beautiful one with an evenness throughout the ranges – capable of sending out a barely audible “che . . . che” one minute and full-throated, glorious singing, employing all manner of vocal tricks and tossing off difficult coloratura as though it were nothing at all. This is a Nero both conceived and executed with brilliance and Coote is amply rewarded at her curtain.

Tenor Andrew Tortoise beautifully captures both Lucan’s infatuation and nervous misgiving of his leader. The love scene between the two – beginning with words celebrating Seneca’s death – offers some of the score’s most beautiful music. Carsen, however, has cooked up something new and grim for us here as homoeroticism turns terrifying and deadly, Nerone’s cronies drugging the poet, stripping him and placing him into a tub where he’s joined by Coote’s fully clothed, wild-eyed and insatiable Emperor. It all plays out with a graphic horror that had me squirming and barely able to watch – no longer fun or erotic but rather dangerous and threatening. Some (plenty actually) might (and will) object to such dramatic license – but I found it made for gripping, intense theatre.

Paolo Battaglia brings an oddly wooly – yet ultimately gorgeous sound, as well as a sincerity and nobility to Seneca and his scene with his disciples begging him to reconsider his suicide, makes for sensational, and gripping theatre. (I disagree with the decision, however, to have him die offstage.)

It’s tough to single out the “drag” performers here, but pride-of-place probably goes down to Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s delightfully absurd – and yet ultimately moving, Arnalta (also the only cast member to receive applause during the actual performance). Dominique Visse cannot be left out either, as his nurse/smartly turned out as more of a secretary/aide - provides genuine comic relief being both goofy and elegant.

Christophe Dumaux (who as Tolomeo stole every scene in the Giulio Cesare three years earlier) is less enthralling as Ottone, though his scene following Nero’s forgiveness is, fittingly, moving.

Tamara Mumford is given the thankless(?) task of turning Ottavia (usually the most sympathetic character in the opera) into a bitter, vengeful shrew. She does it well, though I felt the odd staging of the usually powerful “Addio Roma” (sung quietly in front of the slumbering Poppea and Nerone) shifted the drama in the wrong direction, ultimately reducing one of the opera’s most powerful scenes of conflict and emotion, to a mere “number.”

Marie Arnet shows off a voice of remarkable beauty (I kept thinking what a fine Poppea she might make herself) is radiant, racy and ultimately a most potent presence as Drusilla.

In an interesting stroke, Carsen has the drama play out all as a story told by Amore, who raises the curtains, turns out the lights, and essentially runs the show. He is delightfully played by Amy Freston in a (surprise) blood red suit, that makes her both cupid and devil – the perky soprano making the most of both.

When the production opened, I found I was rather amazed by how many critics complained about the pared down orchestration and openly pined for the days of Leppard’s “vulgar excesses” which once employed the whole of the London Philharmonic, several even calling the contributions of The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment “thin gruel” (or worse). I’ll take it both ways, thank you very much. Personally, I adored Maestro Leppard’s fleshing out of Monteverdi’s bare-as-bones scores, and it is to him we principally owe the debt of gratitude for resurrecting some of the earliest – and most important – contributions to the lyric stage. Nonetheless, for this production I found Emmanuelle Haim’s sparkling with a life and energy I don’t think I’ve ever before quite witnessed.

The vast array of sounds emanating from the pit were alternately spare and full, wistful and harrowing, and making some of Monteverdi’s strange harmonies sound so modern they could still be waiting for the ink to dry. Haim is absolutely in love with this score, and goes at it hammer and tongs, playing the harpsichord herself. She also has a little fun giving us her own fashion show, appearing in a different gown and hairstyle for each act.

All told, Carsen and his team give us a fresh, unflinching new look at one of opera’s oldest hits – and that is, in my opinion, always cause for celebration.


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