A Compelling Modernist Realisation of L’incoronazione di Poppea

GermanyGermany Monteverdi (arr. Kats-Chernin) – L’incoronazione di Poppea: Soloists, Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin / Matthew Toogood (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 19.5.2017. (MB)

Photo credit: Iko Freese.
Komische Oper’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (c) Iko Freese.

L’incoronazione di Poppea (sung in German, as Die Krönung der Poppea)

Poppea – Alma Sadé
Nerone – Dominic Köninger
Ottavia – Karolina Gumos
Otho – Maria Fiselier
Seneca – Jens Larsen
Arnalta – Thomas Michael Allen
Nurse – Tom Erik Lie
Valletto – Tansel Akzeybek
Druislla – Julia Giebel
Damigella, Fortune – Talya Lieberman
Amor – Peter Renz
Virtue – Katarzyna Włodarczyk
Liberto – Adrian Stooper

Director – Barrie Kosky
Revival director – Felix Seiler
Designs – Katrin Lea Tag
Costumes – Katharina Tasch
Dramaturgy – Ulrich Lenz
Lighting – Alexander Koppelmann

Monteverdi in German, with an orchestra containing saxophones, vibraphone, and castanets, and a continuo group including various electric (and acoustic) guitars and theorbo, directed by Barrie Kosky: definitely not one for Sackbuts R Us and whatever its splinter groups might be calling themselves at the moment. Farewell, then, to those whose smelling salts did the trick a little too well, or who are too busy clutching their pearls to read further. You will, alas, miss the bit when I say that my problem – not to be overstated – with Elena Kats-Chernin’s realisation (or whatever we wish to call it) of L’incoronazione di Poppea was that it did not go further, or perhaps rather that it sometimes went far enough, but not quite in the right (or the better) direction.

This is a revised version, premiered this year, of the version given in 2012 of all three Monteverdi operas (in a single day!), at the beginning of Kosky’s tenure here as Intendant. It seems that there was some dissatisfaction with what came of this part of the trilogy, Kosky, in a typically revealing programme interview, speaking of Poppea having sounded as though it were not quite finished, Orfeo (Orpheus) and Ulisse (Odysseus) having received very much their own soundworlds whereas Poppea had sounded ‘a little pale and vague’. That certainly did not seem to be the case here. There were, though, times – especially earlier on, so maybe it was a case of my ears becoming accustomed – when I felt there was a certain prettifying gilding of the lily, or a ‘busyness’ almost for its own sake, not least with unwanted (to my ears) complication of extra passing notes, suspensions, and so forth: not unlike, perhaps ironically, what one often hears in certain, allegedly ‘period’, interventionist continuo playing. On the whole, though, and despite those passages that sounded somewhat oddly as if they had an air of the Christmas medley to them, the results intrigued. There was an especially attractive – and attractively played – oboe obbligato at some point. (I am afraid I cannot remember quite where.) What I missed was the real sense of a truly modernist reinterpretation. Henze’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria remains an exemplar in that respect, to my ears (and to Thomas Allen’s) more redolent of the Mediterranean than any other. This was perhaps more jazzy Respighi – which may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but such will always be the case with recreation of a Monteverdi opera. A great ‘what might have been’ was the Poppea Berio was said to have been at work on when he died; perhaps, however, even that may be better off in the imagination of our minds.

For reference, the orchestral forces were two oboes, two saxophones (alto, and one covering alto, tenor, and baritone), two trumpets (second also on flugelhorn), cimbasso, percussion (vibraphone, maracas, castanets, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, and ‘others’), nine violas, four cellos, two double basses; the continuo group was made up of two guitars (electric, and acoustic, also playing banjo, mandolin, dobro, 12-string steel guitar, ukulele, jazz guitar, Hawaii guitar, slide guitar), cello, synthesiser, and theorbo). There was much in the way of atmosphere, perhaps more when it came to the continuo instruments (arguably closer to a ‘modern’ interpretation of the Monteverdian ensemble). Conductor Matthew Toogood is credited with the ‘concept and arrangement of continuo parts’ – so presumably part, at least, of the credit for that should go to him. He generally paced the action well, and with variety, although there were a few occasions – usually no more than a bar or two – in which the tension sagged: more, it seemed, a matter of rhythms needing tightening up than anything grievous in the longer term.

Kosky speaks of the music’s temperature of a sweltering summer, even when (yes, even in this realisation!) we are down to just a couple of instruments. Katrin Lea Tag’s set design thus suggests, rather than pedantically represents, a volcanic landscape: ‘hot stone boulders in a dry and desolate expanse’. The characters bring, as it were, the juice, the refreshment, but it is a decidedly acidic variety, just as it should be. One has to take the general Kosky æsthetic, but it seems pretty well suited in any case. Explicit eroticism and the high camp of nurses in drag are, after all, very much part of the work and of seventeenth-century Venetian opera more generally. Raymond Leppard spoke of a certain degeneration at some point later on in the works of Cavalli et al., in which the cross-dressing and so on became ends in themselves. That is certainly not the case here, either in work or production.

And so, we had a Poppea in Alma Sadé who was much more than mere ‘sex kitten’, although there was no doubting the far from overstated eroticism of her performance. She was determined, resourceful, adaptable, and beauty lay as much in her voice as elsewhere. The dangerous Nerone of baritone Dominik Köninger, utterly in thrall to his senses, his seemingly unlimited power, was perhaps more overtly sexual. In the chilling scene just after the interval, in which he and Poppea gouged out the eyes of a sexual plaything, he took the lead, although she did not demur. Much more, however, was suggested, and it was perhaps noteworthy that we never saw either of them naked. Nor did we see Karolina Gumos’s dignified, yet unswervingly cold, Ottavia. Jens Larsen’s Seneca, on the other hand, met his end sad, lonely, denuded in every sense: exposed as a fraud, or at least severely questioned, not only by Nerone, but also by Tansel Akzeybek’s vain, thrusting Valletto. Maria Fiselier’s Otho proved duly sympathetic, utterly lost to his/her passions, although not unambiguous in that respect. Tom Erik Lie and Thomas Michael Allen were properly outrageous, again not unsympathetic, if just as scheming as everyone else, as the pair of old nurses. Peter Renz, uncannily reminiscent of Betty White, strode the stage, effortlessly, starrily – like an evil Fairy Godmother –stirring up mischief, heartache, and death, as Amor.

As ever at the Komische Oper, there was an excellent sense of company; all contributed to a drama considerably greater than the sum of its parts. The immediacy of the vernacular German – even to me, an Englishman – in Susanne Felicitas Wolf’s translation for the most part justified itself; I missed Busenello’s Italian far less than I could ever have imagined. It was, moreover, little less than a masterstroke to have Ottavia’s final ‘Addio’ in the original: not just in itself, but since it was followed by the ‘continuo’ echo of three gunshots by the deranged Emperor: Ottavia, Drusilla, and Otho were no more. Quite a musical coup de theatre!

‘One cannot emphasise the incredible radicalism of this opera enough,’ Kosky rightly says. ‘It is,’ he continues, ‘a through and through sarcastic piece about political intrigue and the cold, calculating instrumentalisation of emotions in the intrigues of power. In this piece, there is essentially not a single truly positive figure. All are deeply ensnared by general moral corruption.’ That is perhaps not telling us anything we do not know, but the point is that that is very much what Kosky shows us on stage, at least as clearly as in that admirable summary. That seems to me an ‘authenticity’ worth lauding. And yes, the radicalism remains as incredible as ever, at least as extreme as in the operas of Berg, and yet nearly three centuries earlier. It is not, I hasten to add, that we should be surprised at radicalism from ages other than our own: such is the arrogance and stupidity of those with no sense of history. It is, perhaps, worth noting, though, that it speaks to us as directly as ever – with or without, I think, the accoutrements of ‘historicism’ or ‘modernity’. The glory here remains that of Monteverdi, of Busenello, and of the performers who continue to bring their genius to performative life.

Mark Berry

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