Sex, Violence and Beauty: L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Opernhaus Zürich

Monteverdi – L’incoronazione di Poppea

Amore / Famigliare I – Jake Arditti
Fortuna / Damigella – Florie Valiquette
La Virtù – Hamida Kristoffersen
Nerone – David Hansen
Ottavia – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Poppea – Julie Fuchs
Ottone – Delphine Galou
Drusilla – Deanna Breiwick
Nutrice – Manuel Nuñez Camelino
Arnalta – Emiliano González Toro
Seneca – Nahuel Di Pierro
Valletto – Gemma Ní Bhriain
Lucano / Primo Soldato /  Famigliare II – Thobela Ntshanyana
Littore / Famigliare III – Michael Hauenstein
Liberto / Secondo Soldato – Kristofer Lundin

Orchestra La Scintilla / Ottavio Dantone.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito

Opernhaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.  Sunday, July 8th, 2018.

Can L’incoronazione di Poppea, a work written in the seventeenth century and set in antiquity, still have resonance today?  On the basis of this revelatory staging by Calixto Bieito, the answer is a most resounding yes.  In many respects, Poppea is the ultimate opera.  It contains a musing on power, sex, violence, tragedy, brutality, bawdy humour – not to mention a fair bit of polysexual romping.  Perhaps, with an eye on this, Bieito offers us an immersive, quite virtuosic staging.

Most of the action takes place on an oval runway, over where the orchestra pit is usually situated, within which the orchestra sits.  On the stage itself, audience members sit either side of stairs used for various characters to enter and exit.  A large screen behind the stage audience, as well as seven screens on either side of the proscenium, show cast members magnified through live action video (designed by Sarah Derendinger), as well as imagery involving characters or freeze frames.  In fact, the sight of Ottavia’s eyes watching was particularly striking, as were images of Poppea and Nerone taking a bubble bath while Ottone lamented his fate.  The fluency with which the video is deployed is absolutely staggering – the ‘now’ drifting in and out of the imagined in an almost hypnotic way.  It also allows audience members, wherever they are seated in the house, to view and participate in the action.  Indeed, there was a fair bit of audience participation with Florie Valiquette’s Fortuna throwing off various pairs of panties into the audience with aplomb.

As always, so much of what Bieito does is based in the text.  Nerone’s line to Seneca ‘Ottavia è infrigitida e infeconda’ (Ottavia is frigid and barren) takes on added resonance as David Hansen’s Nerone pursues the clearly very pregnant Julie Fuchs’ Poppea.  There’s a dichotomy to the work – the beauty at the heart of it is countered by Nerone’s brutality towards Seneca, as well as his shameless abandonment of Ottavia.  Bieito doesn’t shy away from showing that, nor does he shy away from confronting us with Drusilla’s pain as she is violently attacked, her attacker forcing her to confront her bloodied face in a mirror.  The hauntingly beautiful closing duet ‘pur ti miro’, is accompanied by images of Nerone’s bloody face.  It was beguilingly sung by Fuchs and Hansen but also left us with precisely that sense of uneasiness that it really should leave us with.  Poppea might be happy now but who knows what the future holds.

Similarly, Ottavia’s abandonment was devastatingly brought to life by Stéphanie d’Oustrac – this once handsome, elegant woman reduced to a shadow of her former self in an ‘addio Roma’ of searing, intense passion.  It was horrific to watch but also absolutely compelling.  D’Oustrac’s tart, juicy mezzo used with thrilling abandon.  Naturally, the bawdy humour was definitely present – much of it led by an engaging trio of deities in Jake Arditti’s Amore, Hamida Kristoffersen’s Virtù and Valiquette’s Fortuna.  Arditti’s oaky, fluently-produced countertenor, Valiquette’s crystalline and effortless soprano as well as Kristoffersen’s fuller, richer tones giving much pleasure.  All three displayed tremendous comic timing.

Indeed, this was a performance that lived due to the strength of individual performances.  There wasn’t a single weak link in the entire cast, musically; dramatically we were given performances of remarkable vividness throughout.  So often it feels that individual performances can feel separate to the staging.  Here, we had that unbeatable sense of a group of superb singing-actors uniting around and completely dedicated to their common vision.

This was nowhere more apparent than in the central pairing of Poppea and Nerone.  There was an unmistakable chemistry present between Fuchs and Hansen, both completely unable to keep their hands off each other.  Fuchs dominated the stage in her diamante platform heels and big hair.  She also dominated it vocally.  The voice is voluptuous, bright and very well placed.  She dispatched Monteverdi’s writing with almost improvisatory freedom in a way that made it sound as if she were the only person in the world who could sing it.  The sheer beauty that she brought out in her caressed imprecation of ‘stretti amplessi’ to Nerone as well as the miraculous ease on top was astounding.  Fuchs is a very special artist.

Similarly, Hansen’s Nerone was a completely convincing portrayal of a dangerous yet seductive anti-hero.  The multifaceted nature of his personality, that he and Bieito brought out, the seductiveness behind the brutality, was most impressive.  Vocally, Hansen was staggering – the voice reaching almost unimaginable heights with an ease on top, as well as a fullness of tone up there, that was most impressive.  The ease with which he turned the corners in the faster, florid writing was nothing short of remarkable.  He also camped it up magnificently with Thobela Ntshanyana’s Lucano in their duet.  Ntshanyana definitely a name to watch with a handsome and warm lyric tenor.

In the remainder of the cast, Delphine Galou brought her slightly grainy, somewhat androgynous mezzo to Ottone, singing with impassioned dignity.  Deanna Breiwick worked it around the stage as Drusilla, her silky, attractive soprano ideally hiding the machinations under the surface.  Manuel Nuñez Camelino was great value as a deliciously camp, suited Nutrice.  Nahuel di Pierro brought a dark yet warm bass to Seneca.  His suicide scene was sung with unbearable honesty, the voice taking on fullness and warmth as it descended to the sepulchral depths.  It feels almost criminal not to discuss the remainder of the cast in detail.  Suffice it to say that the quality of what we saw and heard today was at the very highest level.

The same can be said for the playing of the house period instrument band, Orchestra La Scintilla, under Ottavio Dantone’s direction.  Dantone led a reading that flowed seamlessly, pulling out the full range of instrumental colour – in particular the ravishing string sound.  A couple of isolated brass slips notwithstanding, the band played with the utmost security.  Dantone also exploited the sparseness of the orchestration to make time stand still in places, particularly in Ottavia’s two big numbers.  The closing ‘pur ti miro’, launched on a lilting tempo, was a glorious conclusion to a performance that truly lived.

This afternoon in the theatre was something very special.  It reflected what opera is and always should be.  The work of a visionary and master stage director, creating a vision that combined music, acting and technology to create an immersive and captivating Gesamtkunstwerk that made the boundaries between stage and audience permeable and transient.  It was successful due to the extreme dedication of an exceptionally fine group of singing-actors, who gave us such vivid dramatic performances, and musically performed at the very highest level.  The entire company succeeded in making a seventeenth-century opera feel so immediate and relevant.  It was a compelling study in violence, in lust for power, but also in love and what happens when one loses what matters most.  This was the kind of evening that one searches for but rarely finds.  An exceptional experience.

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One comment

  1. […] This is a pretty good account of what went down in Zurich (re: Poppea). (From my seat in my Mum’s kitchen) I’m not very convinced by those projections either but I do like the rounded stage idea, with the displaced balcony box spectators at the back. […]

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