L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea


(Teatro Real, Madrid, with Les Arts Florissant and William Christie, 2010)

In the wake of the Barbican’s semi-staged Poppea, I decided to have another go at the DVD of this 2010 version from the Teatro Real in Madrid, to see how the two productions compared. It had completely bewildered me first time round. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it much more now that I had a better appreciation of the opera and its context. There are certain elements that I think the Barbican did better, but the Madrid version, with its stellar cast, certainly throws a long shadow. It’s staged, which is a big plus for me; but it completely overshadows the Barbican in one other important way as well.

And that’s Danielle de Niese’s Poppea. For me, the Barbican version was dominated by Nerone (which goes to show what an impact a really strong performance can have), but in this production the title character wrestles back the limelight with considerable aplomb; and the mood of the production changes as a result. De Niese seems to be a bit of a polarising force, judging by reviews I’ve seen on Amazon, but I thought she was splendid, with a rich and sensual voice that was perfect for the role. This, surely, is how Poppea should be: old enough to be conscious of her seductive power, but young enough to still have a kittenish grace about her and a playful, childish interaction with her beloved nurse. De Niese managed to get that juxtaposition just right: you could genuinely believe that she’d intoxicate an emperor.

And she was particularly good at her interaction with Nerone: everything about her body language, her eyes, her expression, spoke of her (slightly baffling) passion for this man. You find yourself rooting for Poppea because she is so full of life, so instinctive, so driven by love, in contrast to the Empress Ottavia (Anna Bonitatibus), who lurks like a statue in her gloomy palace. The DVD gives a strong sense that the plot of the opera is driven by its female characters – at the Barbican, Nerone seemed slightly more in control and so the question was really whether he would succeed, rather than whether Poppea would succeed. That’s different here. And it’s actually precisely because de Niese’s Poppea is so exuberantly, convincingly (calculatingly?) infatuated with Nerone that Jaroussky’s responses feel a little detached and flat.

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

Nerone (Philippe Jaroussky)

In this Madrid version, Nerone is a very different beast from Sarah Connolly’s poised, authoritative tyrant at the Barbican. Maybe it’s just that Jaroussky sounds and looks a little like an overgrown boy, but I definitely felt that his Nerone was very young and easily swayed. He’s a petulant adolescent who’s been married off to a much older woman and is chafing at the bit, lashing out from boredom. He’s dangerous by caprice rather than design – which doesn’t make him any less of a psychopath, but perhaps a less thrilling and disturbing one. As for the singing, there were several points where I felt that Jaroussky ends up pushing himself to go just a little bit higher than his comfort zone, and it shows. For much of the performance he pulls out all the stops with that lovely, clear, incongruously angelic voice, which helps to create the picture of a juvenile, inexperienced emperor; but there are moments when he becomes a little too shrill for my liking. He goes over the top in several ways, actually, and there are a few points where his acting turns into scenery-chewing; but then again, I suppose one might argue that, if you can’t do that when playing the Emperor Nero, when can you do it?

All hinges on the closing Pur ti miro, however, and here it sounds gorgeous: sumptuous, romantic and much more intimate than other versions I’ve seen. De Niese’s very rich and powerful voice is delicately offset by Jaroussky’s purity and lightness and, while they may not have a strong physical chemistry, their voices match perfectly. (There’s one point in the opera which I missed first time, but which really impressed me this time – alas I don’t remember where – when de Niese finishes a line by holding a note and Jaroussky seamlessly picks up exactly the same note and carries on with it. So clever.)

Going back to Pur ti miro… oh dear… I just find it terribly distracting to watch, though. It’s the costumes. While clingy gold robes suit de Niese, they really, really don’t do anything for Jaroussky, especially with that high neck and that undead make-up. And that’s despite the fact that I suspect some kind of Byzantine influence, which I’d normally whole-heartedly applaud. Yes. Jaroussky has to put up with a lot in this production, but the primary cross he has to bear are his costumes which – let’s face it – are absurd. (The one exception is the rather lovely Titian-pink Venetian-senator-style robe that he gets to wear in the final act, which I admired.)

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

Nerone (Philippe Jaroussky) in his feathers from the first act

But, for the whole first act, he is swamped by an enormous, shapeless robe completely smothered in black feathers which, with his white face, dark lips and shadowed eyes, makes him look like a cross between a vampire and a very large raven. Feathers are not necessarily a bad thing of course and, if you want someone to stride around the stage in a massive feathered cloak then Jaroussky, with his stature, is probably your man. But it just doesn’t quite work. The costumes and design as a whole are rather historically confused, in fact: this certainly isn’t a production which prides itself on historical accuracy. There are Roman draped gowns, modern suits, a lot of metallic column-shaped robes, and some very scary leather shorts. Everything takes place on a simple set which is best described as Ancient Rome meets Mussolini. And yet, despite the peculiar mixture, the whole isn’t quite as off-putting as it should be.

The rest of the cast are very good: I should devote a few lines to Max Emanuel Cencic’s Ottone. He sings the role beautifully, in that unmistakable honeyed, gentle voice, but even Cencic on excellent form can’t hide the fact that Ottone is basically a bit of a wet blanket. On first seeing the DVD, I’d been impressed by his acting; but I must say that, post-Barbican, I missed the greater liveliness and naturalism of Davies’s interpretation. Cencic doesn’t quite convince with his romantic volte-face at the end. His declarations are slightly stiff, sitting ill at ease with Ana Quintans’s delightfully artless Drusilla.

A special mention should also go to Robert Burt, who turned in a splendid performance as Arnalta: she’s less of a pantomime dame than Andrew Tortise’s version at the Barbican, and somehow more cuddly and mumsy. You could well believe that this Arnalta has nursed Poppea: the dynamic between them was very much like that between Juliet and her Nurse and I thought it added a lovely note to the production. Antonio Abete makes an imposing Seneca and his bulk and height offer a good counterpart to Jaroussky’s slim, neurotic Nerone, but his voice is so very deep that it’s almost colourless: with his sober stoic robes and the monochrome staging all around, it makes for quite heavy going. For all that, the effect works well: Seneca and the equally understated Ottavia look like two responsible adults adrift at a debauched student party.

Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea

Nerone (Philippe Jaroussky) and Lucano (Mathias Vidal) in the singing contest scene

Talking of debauchery (and Jaroussky having to put up with things), this is probably one of the more memorable interpretations of the singing contest scene. Unlike the Barbican version, which started out as a bit of matey banter, and the Barcelona version, which is very hands-off and completely batty, this is seduction from the word go. It offers, deliberately or not, a reason why Nerone’s passion for Poppea never really feels real. I think it surprised me so much first time round because Jaroussky generally comes across as an innocent, rather sexless kind of singer – the detached saint of Sant’ Alessio or the arm’s-length courtly lover of Artaserse – the result of his voice type and his choirboy looks. But the scene works, dramatically and musically, and it plays into the opera’s broader interpretation of Nerone as quite a weak figure, in thrall to those around him. The duet is given a much more languid pacing than I’ve seen elsewhere and Mathias Vidal’s Lucano switches beautifully between more robust sections and moments of exquisite, inviting yearning. He throws in a particularly pretty piece of ornamentation on one of his ‘cantiam’s although, it’s true, you might be forgiven for missing that detail on first watching it.

There are some noticeable differences between this production and that I saw at the Barbican: for a start, while the Barbican cut out most of the divine intervention, the gods are here in full force on the DVD, with Minerva and Mercury appearing in succession to warn Seneca of his approaching death. Personally I find that their presence just adds to the weight and pomposity of the scene; and I wasn’t particularly sorry to see them excised at the Barbican. In fact, the entire role and presentation of Seneca was one of the Barbican’s strengths: here it’s all a little too sombre and sober. And yet, funnily enough, although the DVD production is a bit heavier and sluggish in parts, it’s also much bawdier. That doesn’t always work so well. I’ve seen comic-dramatic mixes done well, but for me this Poppea doesn’t quite pull it off, and the bawdiness, particularly the guards prancing around in the first act, feels a bit like self-conscious, try-hard naughtiness.

Overall, I think the two productions are neck-and-neck, each having its strengths and shortcomings. When all’s said and done, a fully-staged performance will always have a power that a concert or semi-staged version will find it hard to challenge, even if it doesn’t exactly push the boat out for visual flamboyance; and the cast of this Madrid production were uniformly very strong. Even if I didn’t always like the interpretation of the characters as much as I did at the Barbican, there’s no doubt that there’s some sheer class going on here. However, the vocal performances at the Barbican do come out of the comparison extremely well and, as I’ve said, despite the restricted staging I found the actual acting of Connolly, Davies and Rose more engaging, or at least appealing, than that of their DVD counterparts.

With two more productions on my soon-to-buy list, it’ll be interesting to see if the rankings change after I’ve seen the Barcelona version (Sarah Connolly again), and sampled Cencic as Nerone.

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