(Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 19 October 2015)
Before seeing Poppea, I’d been warned it was ‘hardcore Regietheater’, a phrase which would normally provoke serious qualms. But even I know better than to go to a Claus Guth production expecting togas and sandals. Despite my conservative tastes I can appreciate regie if it’s done well. It depends whether the director’s taken time to think about the story, or whether he’s simply thrown in sharks, parrots or a live bull for the sake of it. Guth certainly fell into the first category. His production isn’t traditional, but it’s based on an intelligent reading of the story. It toys with the audience’s expectations and makes you think afresh about the dynamics between the characters. This Poppea is good regie: deceptively playful, with a heart of darkness.
This production starts from the premise that men are the playthings of the gods, a concept which it takes literally. The prologue is staged on a 1970s-style game-show set, where Amor (Jake Arditti), Fortuna (Viktorija Bakan) and Virtu (Natalia Kawalek) stake their competing claims to dominance over the human heart. But instead of then vanishing from the stage, as usually happens, the three deities remain present for most of the opera, jostling with one another and engaging in high levels of divine intervention. As Dehggial pointed out on the night, you can feel slightly beaten over the head by the idea, but it offers a different slant from the usual earthly power-play.
Both Amor and Fortuna seem determined to serve up a feelgood fairytale: a Pretty Woman-style story of call-girl-meets-handsome-prince. And so the characters’ travails are transformed by the gods into light entertainment. Poppea’s nurse Arnalta (José Manuel Zapata) offers her advice in the manner of a talk-show host, perched opposite her charge with a microphone thrust into her face. Seneca (Franz-Josef Selig) lectures Ottavia (Jennifer Larmore) like a TV professor at his podium, and his famigliari become a disco-era boyband, complete with identikit wigs, flares and dance moves as they urge him not to die. And Nerone’s judgement on Drusilla (Sabina Puértolas) and Ottone (Christophe Dumaux) takes place in a media glare: the emperor is less interested in the malefactors (he seems positively bored of the whole thing) than in making sure the camera’s got his best angle.
All this frivolity works surprisingly well because it takes place on the game-show stage which represents the sphere of the gods’ influence. But Guth’s production isn’t a fairytale. The clever set rotates to show a shabby backstage area, where the gods rarely venture and where we see the characters in their less polished moments, struggling to comprehend the forces that drive them this way or that. In this space, there is room for doubt, and throughout the opera, darker forces are at work over which even the gods have no control. After all, as Lucan said, ‘The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life.’ As the stage spins, and the plot picks up momentum, scenes are linked by foreboding additional music, which hints at the net closing in around the characters.
So why had I come all the way to Vienna to see an opera that I’ve seen several times already? One reason will be obvious enough: Valer Sabadus. I quite like him (as did the other audience members I spoke to*) and had wanted to see him sing this role for some time, because I thought the music would suit his voice very well. And indeed it did. He made more of a vocal impact than he did when I saw him in Dusseldorf, perhaps partly due to the smaller theatre, and partly to those lovely long, smooth lines that Monteverdi puts into his music. Sabadus can play this to his strengths, drawing out the sweet, shimmering high notes he does so well, and there were some especially gorgeous pieces of ornamentation, such as his ‘Addio’ to Poppea at the start. His low notes weren’t always so powerful, but the overall impression was one of honeyed ease. I’ve always thought him a good actor and that became important here: the depth and darkness of the concept rested largely on his ability to show Nerone’s battle with himself, and Sabadus made an unusually haunted emperor.
But even I wasn’t about to go all the way to Vienna just for him. It was serendipitous that the cast also included three very talented young British singers who’d impressed me in other productions and whom I was keen to see again. So the fact I actually got on that plane was largely down to Emilie Renard (a delightfully upbeat Arbace in Handel’s Catone pasticcio), Jake Arditti (a very good Xerxes) and Rupert Charlesworth (a debonair Jupiter in the Handel Festival’s Semele). And they were definitely worth the trip. Charlesworth turned in a fine triple performance, as one of Nerone’s guards – achieving the remarkable feat of singing with a mouthful of toothpaste – as one of Seneca’s famigliari and also as the poet Lucano. His voice offered a lovely counterpoint to Sabadus’s in the singing contest and there was some very pretty ornamentation there from both parties.
Renard was initially a discreet, white-jacketed Valletto, waiting on the sozzled Ottavia; but for her singing scenes she came bouncing on in trainers, dungarees and a Superman t-shirt, the very embodiment of high-octane energy. Her Sento un certo non so che was delightful: flirtatious and cheeky with just the right amount of adolescent confusion. This Valletto couldn’t believe his luck. And Arditti, as Amore, was on stage for a large proportion of the show, to the point that dramatically he became one of the main characters. I’m always slightly nervous when I’ve been very enthusiastic about someone and then I see them for the second time; but Arditti’s voice was just as clear and refined as I remembered. He was the strongest singer among the gods, and he coupled vocal control with a very good sense of dramatic and comic timing. Keeping watch over the characters’ fates, this Amore was (or thought he was) the presiding genius of the production.
The other singers were all new to me except, of course, Christophe Dumaux, who played the downtrodden lover with angsty aplomb in an intensely physical performance. His most memorable appearance, though, was in the travesti scene where he appeared disguised as Drusilla in wig, heels and bright magenta dress. To his credit, he carried it off better than many Ottones I’ve seen, who usually try to get away with just wearing part of Drusilla’s get-up – a scarf, perhaps. Alex Penda’s Poppea shifted between brash confidence (in Nerone’s presence) and lingering anxiety (elsewhere): she suggested a fragility to the character that we don’t often see, and her voice blended well with Sabadus’s, his providing a mellifluous cradle for her slightly harder sound in the final duet. Her acting there was very interesting: although technically she’s triumphed, she looked lost, almost afraid. One voice that really stood out for me was Marcel Beekman as the Nutrice: he sang with striking clarity and I was very impressed by his light, agile voice; moreover, I liked his schoolmistressy air.
But something which applies to everyone, and which is not the singers’ fault at all, is that they were sometimes overshadowed by the sheer amount of stuff going on in the production. We as the audience had so much to process that it was hard to actually focus on the voices. The colourful acting could get in the way, as it did with Jennifer Larmore’s Ottavia. She pulled off such a wonderful performance of self-pitying drunkenness during Disprezzata regina that we didn’t really get to hear the full power of her voice. Dramatically it was a pleasant change from the usual uptight empress, but I’d been listening to some of Larmore’s recordings and I’d have loved to hear her show off a bit more. The same was true of José Manuel Zapata (Arnalta), who turned in a vivaciously camp performance that reminded me very strongly of the drag-queen Paca from Almodovar’s Bad Education. It was very entertaining, but he didn’t get to use his fine tenor very much. However, I understand: this production was concerned with dramatic impact rather than prettified vocals and, as a story, it worked better that way.
Let’s go back to the concept again: I liked it more the more I thought about it. To me, the dynamic was all about domination. Nerone is still very young here, little more than a boy, and it’s implied that those around him have grown used to manipulating him, trying to win him as a friend or lover in order to achieve their own ambitions. But Nerone is beginning to realise this. The authority figures in his life, like his old tutor Seneca, see him as nothing but a route to fame and renown. We see Seneca sitting with his arm round Nerone as he frets over what to do about Ottavia: it gives a glimpse of what their relationship used to be like, but things have changed beyond salvation. We never see Ottavia and Nerone together, but she has no real affection for her misguided young husband. She’s concerned about her own status, her expensive lifestyle and her reputation: here she’s the older woman, forced on him by political exigency. The marriage has evidently been miserable for both parties.
Failed by his father figure and his wife, is it any wonder that Nerone’s looking for affection elsewhere? The tragedy is that no one seems free of self-interest. His clumsy advances to his friend Lucano get out of control and Nerone again finds someone else trying to dominate and control him. Unlike many other readings of this scene, Guth’s version isn’t that sexy (a shame, in a way, because there was a lot of aesthetic potential there). There’s an initial spark of eroticism, but the emphasis is on power rather than desire. The minute that Nerone realises he’s losing control, he snaps and, shoving Lucano to the floor, kicks him viciously in the stomach. (It’s a significant image: this is how Nero would accidentally kill the pregnant Poppea three years later.) Nerone is dangerous, true, but that’s because he’s damaged. Those around him have been too busy leeching off him to give him any chance to develop as a healthy, rounded human being.
And what of Poppea? We see her in a position of influence when the story opens. Having grasped the complex role of submission and domination in Nerone’s life, she makes this a central feature of their sexual encounters. She runs the show: she orders him to go or stay, she exploits his gauche infatuation with her, and she uses her sexual power to urge him on when his resolution flags. But Nerone is beginning to resent her domination. When we see him for the first time he doesn’t look like a man who’s just spent a sensuous night with his mistress. He’s slumped in a chair: he looks depressed; confused; resigned. His frustrated attempts to take control lead to telling mistakes: a rough mock-strangulation, for example, that nearly goes too far. Once again, the sex is about power not sensuality (it’s probably the least voluptuous version of Poppea I’ve seen).
This Nerone has had enough of being pushed around by others; he’s beginning to crumble psychologically; but how can he escape? Dominated politically, intellectually and sexually, he can only see one way out. He lets ‘them’ think they’ve won. His emotional disintegration is shielded by the smiling face the gods want to see, and when he pardons Ottone and Drusilla, and proclaims the triumph of love with his marriage to Poppea, Amor and Fortuna glory in their success. But things start to unravel with Pur ti miro. The big fairytale wedding is usually the climax: the happy ending. But this production forces you to think about what might happen after the wedding. These two characters have got to live the rest of their lives together. Although Poppea’s got what she thinks she wants, she’s out of her depth; and Nerone is troubled but unreadable at this point.
The familiar melody of Pur ti miro begins, but the words don’t come. The characters drift off the stage, separately, awkwardly. In the empty back-lot they finally begin to sing, but it feels like the tail end of an act that doesn’t convince either of them. They go through the motions, but this paean to the power and compulsion of desire is sung with a physical and emotional gulf between the characters. But by the da capo, things are looking brighter. Nerone leads Poppea by the hand back onto the ‘set’; the disconcerted gods perk up.
This is how it’s meant to be; and indeed that last part of Pur ti miro is as melting and beautiful as you could hope for. And then Nerone makes his final move: checkmate. He pulls a gun. And, to a slow reprise of the Pur ti miro melody, Nerone fires; Poppea crumples; and he lies beside her before turning the gun to his own temple. He loves her, but he wants her on his own terms, and so he takes the only path that will allow him to dictate his own fate. Brutal, dark, completely historically inaccurate obviously, but strangely tender and beautiful.
On the night we went, we had an unexpected bonus in that Sabadus was presented after the curtain call with an Echo Klassik award he’d won the previous day for his Belle Immagini Gluck CD (I was thrilled because it’s one of my favourites and I’ve been telling everyone for months how lovely it is: I’m now officially vindicated). The ceremony had been in Berlin but he hadn’t been able to attend and so the award had been brought back to Vienna for him. So that was rather lovely.
One word of warning about the theatre: be very careful when you book your seats. Lots of people around us in 1. Rang had trouble seeing, because the raking is shallow and you’re pretty much stumped if you’ve got a few rows of people in front of you. I couldn’t see about a quarter of the stage for the first act, despite swaying around like a tree in a strong breeze; so – subduing my English embarrassment at doing so – I commandeered a free seat closer to the front for the second half. Thank goodness. And I wasn’t the only one: there was a very polite stampede. There’s nothing more irritating than flying across the continent to find that your relatively expensive seat doesn’t offer a clear view of the stage. Caveat emptor and all that.
* In some social situations, you might break the ice by asking which football team someone supports. When in the audience at a Baroque opera on the continent, the acceptable conversation opener seems to be, ‘So how many times did you see Artaserse?’