Austria Salzburg Festival  – Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea: Soloists, Bodhi Project and Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, Les Arts Florissants / William Christie (conductor). Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 22.8.2018. (MB)
Poppea – Sonya Yoncheva
Nerone – Kate Lindsey
Ottavia – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Ottone – Carlo Vistoli
Seneca – Renato Dolcini
Virtú, Drusilla – Ana Quintans
Nutrice, First Friend of Seneca – Marcel Beekman
Arnalta – Dominique Voisse
Amore, Calletto – Lea Desandre
Fortuna, Damigella – Tamara Banjesevic
Pallade, Venere – Claire Debono
Solo Dancer – Sarah Lutz (Needcompany)
Jan Lauwers (director, designs, choreography)
Ken Hioco (lighting)
Elke Janssens (dramaturgy)
Chroreographic collaboration – Paul Blackman (Juxtapoz)
Jan Lauwers’s first opera production may be accounted a significant success: alive to theatre, its possibilities and impossibilities, its illusions and delusions. I heard a good few objections – nothing wrong with that in itself, of course – which, sadly and revealingly, seemed to boil down to that perennial bugbear of ‘too much going on’. By definition, ‘too much’ of something will be a bad thing – although sometimes, perhaps, bad things are required. Few of the characters in L’incoronazione di Poppea, even Seneca, a somewhat compromised and therefore all the more credible exception, evince scruples in that or any other respect. Sometimes we, sometimes they too, need to ask why, or at least seem to need to do so. It does not, then, seem entirely unreasonable, nor out of keeping with the spirit of this extraordinary work, to attempt something similar. It is, at any rate, likely to prove more enlightening than simply complaining that ‘too much is going on’. ‘Have you ever seen a Frank Castorf production?’ I was tempted to ask.
In a programme note, Lauwers pertinently mentions Shakespeare, who never fails to come to my mind when contemplating the last two operas of Monteverdi: ‘Shakespeare too employed a form of timeless anti-psychology in his work. Just as the English bard offers no explanation at all of why Lady Macbeth is so “bad”, the protagonists in L’incoronazione di Poppea are also simply “bad”.’ There is much to object to in the claim itself – not least the disregard for an audience that would have known very well what historically would become of Nero and his newly crowned empress – yet it does well not only to point us to Shakespeare, but also to provide a way into what seems to me perhaps the fundamental claim, or way of making a claim, of both production and work. For, as Iain Fenlon points out in his excellent note, the Accademia deli Incogniti, whose members included Monteverdi’s librettist, Francesco Busenello, held that the ‘public world, the world of politics, was principally about the exercise of power. … under these circumstances, the prime obligation of the citizen was that of self-preservation’. Crucially, their published writings, ‘often fiercely sceptical in tone,’ were often ‘designed to illustrate both the incompatibility of words and deeds, and the impossibility of explaining human actions in terms of a single norm or principle’. There are obvious conflicts and materials for conflicts here, such as can make for excellent drama – and here do.
It is here that the dancers really come in – and indeed the instrumentalists. (At least if we are starting where we have started; as ever in opera, had we started somewhere else, we should have taken a different path.) Like staging itself, sometimes they mirror the action, but more often they offer related, alternative paths: a ‘why’, a ‘what if…’, whether for particular singers to whom they might implicitly or explicitly be paired, or for the company as a whole. Not for nothing is this a performance founded on the director’s own Need[for]company. They complete the company too, providing tableaux vivants that may or may not be static, perhaps most memorably of all during the hours of Poppea’s sleep. ‘Like a Renaissance painting’ has been a phrase much mocked recently, the reasons too obvious once again to rehearse; here, however, as with Shakespeare, the enlistment of, say, Caravaggio seems real and enriching. As some of the opera may (or may not) be from the ‘workshop of Monteverdi’, production, performance, reception too likewise partake – surely always they will – in other workshops.
Much of that seems particularly well suited to the world of imperial Rome and its court. Access is always a question in such situations – and so it is here. Access for whom and with whom? We have contemporary versions: a filmed, even ‘reality television’ transition from the Prologue has us observe, participate in the orgiastic goings on. Throughout history, what has been more pornographic, in any number of senses, than the desire not only to watch but also to write such ‘stories’? Is that not part of what Poppea is? All the while, even whilst we are caught up in its detail, in enjoyment thereof, we, like the selected dancer-in-rotation as focal wheel of fate (Fortuna), know how things will turn out – even if we have forgotten. That is certainly not the least of things that we, like our real or imaginary original Venetian audiences, bring to the dramatic table. Observation and understanding of court life, ours or ‘theirs’, will always be partial: that is part of the puzzle, the game.
So too is the score, such as it is, here more foundation – yet what a foundation! – than script for a musical performance. So too, also, are the musicians. There are many ways to perform Monteverdi; anyone who tells you otherwise is either disingenuous or uncomprehending. This way, however, worked uncommonly well: both ‘in itself’ and, more importantly, for this particular staging and concept. To quote Lauwers again, ‘the first thing he,’ that is William Christie, ‘said to me was that there wo[uld]n’t be an orchestra, but a group of soloists, and that he did not wish to adopt a focal position as conductor’. An outstanding group of soloists, then, founded upon a rich in hue continuo group, grounded upon that all important bass line, was essentially conducted – insofar as the term has meaning here – by the singers, by their action and its scenic-vocal instantiation. In Christie’s own words, ‘The roles are reversed.’
Whatever the ‘priority’, and its surely the collaboration that matters more, the singers proved excellent indeed in exploration of the endless subtleties of Monteverdi’s recitar cantando. Sonya Yoncheva’s Poppea was such that one could hardly imagine it otherwise – that despite the wealth of alternatives suggested by dance and gesture. Her seductive, knowing yet unknowing character was keenly matched with the darker Nerone of Kate Lindsey, their blend as erotic as, more erotic than, anyone would have a right to imagine. Stéphanie d’Oustrac perhaps exaggerated – for my taste, anyway – the rhythmic freedom of her final ‘number’, but hers was an intelligent portrayal, which reminded us that, in many ways, this character is just as bad as those who have wronged her. (Might she not too have been Lady Macbeth?) Carlo Vistoli’s Ottone hit just the right note: erotically ‘pure’ of tone, providing quite a different form of allure, yet one just as potent. He too, whilst engaging our sympathy, questioned whether he should have done. Ana Quintans’s rich-yet clear-toned Drusilla did so effortlessly – at least seemingly so – even if, again, she perhaps should not have done. Renato Dolcini offered an unusually youthful Seneca, thought-provokingly so. If I found the crudity of tone of Dominique Visse’s (excessively?) high camp Arnalta something of a fly in the ointment, there are not un-Shakespearen arguments to say that such is all part of life’s rich tapestry. Otherwise, company was truly the thing; I should end up merely rewriting the cast list were I not to stop here. For stopping here is just what L’incoronazione di Poppea does; we were beguiled, enthralled, yet never sated. Like Nerone, Poppea, their world.