Poppea, Drag, and Masturbation

SpainSpain C.Monteverdi / P.Boesmans, Poppea e Nerone: Soloists, Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 19.6.2012 (JMI)

New production Teatro Real in coproduction with the Montpellier Opera

Direction: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting: Felice Ross


Poppea: Nadja Michael
Nerone: Charles Castronovo
Ottavia: Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Ottone: William Towers
Drusilla: Ekaterina Siurina
Seneca: Sir Willard White
Virtú/Palas: Lyubov Petrova
Fortuna/Damigella: Elena Tsallagova
Amore: Serge Kakudji
Arnalta: José Manuel Zapata
Nutrice: Jadwiga Rappé
Valetto: Hannah Esther Minutillo
Lucano/Liberto: Juan Francisco Gatell

Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier de Real

The packaging says “Poppea e Nerone”, but what you get inside is really nothing other than Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Performing this opera in the orchestration by Philippe Boesmans from 1989, revised for this occasion to make it lighter, is hardly unusual and why it would prompt changing its title is beyond me.

Hard to understand, too, why Teatro Real’s Intendant Gerard Mortier programmed this opera at Teatro Real in a new production by his buddy Krzysztof Warlikowski only two years after it has been put on in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production (caught on DVD). That’s some luxury alright, for an opera that isn’t exactly Tosca or Carmen. All the more surprising, considering the financial crisis that has hit Spain and left its mark also, especially, on the cultural landscape. Perhaps Teatro Real lives in a happier Arcadia, but one wonders if they will have to wake up when the accountants stop by. And whether, if that were to happen, Mr.Mortier would be to blame, or the people who let him get away with his whims.

So, we had a new production by Warlikowski, known among other productions, for his “Brokeback Mountain Eugene Onegin” from Munich. (Archived S&H review here.) In contemporary settings, the production begins with a thirteen-minute lecture by Seneca –all without music. Without denying the younger Seneca’s greatness, but even his wisdom doesn’t justify make this opera any longer than it already is. Later, the overt sexual overtones end up boring more than they titillate. Transvestites flood the stage, and in the final scene even Nero and Poppea are dressed in drag, him with long hair; her without any. Arnalta, meanwhile, morphs to her lady-shape from Arnalto—while the beautiful Poppea sleeps in the garden. Liberto accompanies Nero in white underwear, high heels, and spectacular red stockings. Since Ottavia and Ottone don’t seem to be very active with their partners, Warlikowski decides it makes sense to have them masturbate on stage. Obviously a touch, if you will, that really helps us grasp the nuances of their personalities. Did I mention that the Page Valetto is a lesbian drug addict?

But you know what? Apart from these few excesses, I actually liked the show. Warlikowski’s stage direction is great, even when I do not like his vision of the characters. What he is able to get on stage from each of the characters, particularly from Poppea, shows that he is an exceptional director. There is only one stage for the whole opera, a big classroom in that changes into a gym for the second half. The costumes are very attractive and colorful, Poppea’s especially.

available at AmazonMonteverdi, Poppea,
William Christie / Les Arts Florissants
D.de Niese, P.Jaroussky et al.
Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Virgin Classics DVD

With so many great baroque music conductors around, it was difficult to understand why Sylvain Cambreling was on the podium. There are operas that are long and others that can get very long. This usually is due the conductor. Poppea and Nerone got too long. Mr. Cambreling is a great conductor in certain repertoire, but here he was the wrong conductor. But Mr. Mortier is faithful to his friends. The Klangforum Wien orchestra was serviceable. That I had the vivid memory of William Christie’s performance from two years ago (S&H review here) still fresh on my mind, didn’t help.

Poppea is where it’s at in this opera, and the character was played by German soprano Nadja Michael, a real stage animal. Her dramatic performance is beyond even the slightest reproach. I’ve never seen a more convincing Poppea on stage and I’ll not likely see someone like her again. Vocally, it’s a different matter. Her current repertoire ranges from Tosca to Lady Macbeth, Eboli, Santuzza, Elizabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser, and even Marie in Wozzeck. Does Poppea have anything in common with these characters? Obviously, the stage aspect of her performance prevailed and she sang better than I expected (except for the glorious final duet, which was almost unbearable with her voice). But her vocal volume had little to do with the rest of her colleagues.

Charles Castronovo was a good Nero, although I don’t think a tenor like his is exactly right for this character. For the ambiguities that Warlikowski loves so much, certainly I would have preferred to have somebody like Philippe Jaroussky on the stage again.

Maria Riccarda Wesseling was the only singer of baroque extraction, but then I was largely disappointed with her singing. The voice no longer sounds like it did just a few years ago and there was not the slightest hint of emotion in her interpretation of the beautiful aria “Addio, Roma.” Countertenor William Towers was miscast as Ottone, with an unattractive middle range and inaudible on many occasions.

Ekaterina Siurina was an excellent Drusilla, very well suited to the role. Willard White as Seneca kept poise and sound. Jose Manuel Zapata showed his mastery in the comic character of Arnalta, who was perfect on stage, although his high notes are not what they were. Veteran Jadwiga Rappe was a well suited Nurse. Hannah Esther Minutillo went unnoticed vocally as Valletto à la Lesbos. Elena Tsallagova’s Damigella flirted attractively with Valletto. Lyubov Petrova was less interesting as Virtue and Pallas, countertenor Serge Kakudji a resounding Amoe with an unattractive voice and finally Juan Francisco Gatell a luxuriously cast Lucano & Liberto.

When Poppea e Nerone began that Tuesday evening, Teatro Real was about a good three quarters filled. By the final bows it was already Friday, and only a third left. Perhaps insufficiently stimulated by the simulated autoeroticism.

José Mª Irurzun