(Berlin Staatsoper, conducted by Diego Fasolis, 13 December 2017)
Berlin’s Staatsoper has just reopened after a seven-year refurbishment. On Wednesday, the house was sold out as people gathered to celebrate its freshly gilded finery. And what was on the menu for the grand reopening? Not a safe and predictable opera – a Tosca or a Bohème – but a dose of Roman passion and psychosis from the 17th century. With only three performances (this was the last, until its projected revival next summer), this Poppea felt intense, fresh and daring. It wasn’t without its wobbles, but it featured some very strong casting and offered a compelling picture of a court in thrall to an egotistical, unpredictable sun king. Unsurprisingly, I’ve got slightly carried away with the length of this post, so you may wish to furnish yourself with a cup of tea before starting. There are, however, some very pretty pictures.
It’s been a while since I last wrote about Poppea, so let me give a quick summary. The Roman nobleman Ottone returns from abroad, eager to see his beloved Poppea. When he arrives at her house, however, he realises in horror that she’s found a new lover: none other than the Emperor Nerone (Nero) himself. Bored by his dynastic marriage to the virtuous (and dull) Ottavia, Nerone is captivated by the sensual spice of Poppea’s love and decides to make her his wife. But in repudiating Ottavia, he not only insults her but also sets himself in direct opposition to his former tutor, the lofty philosopher Seneca. Where reason can’t find a way, blood, longing and power will open a new path; but Nerone isn’t the only one prepared to kill to get his own way.
Poppea is, at heart, a court opera; and by that I mean about the court rather than written for the court. This is the first production I’ve seen which makes that explicit. Usually there’s an element of lurking and spying, to indicate intrigue in the imperial household, but here the director Eva-Maria Höckmayr took the daring decision to keep the whole cast on stage virtually all the time. They were arranged against a golden slope, rather like a cloth of honour, and even the most private of moments were played out with the courtiers and imperial family looking on from the shadows. It underscores the point that Nerone and Poppea’s liaison is no secret. Ottone is the only one ignorant enough to be shocked, and that’s because he’s been away. Everyone knows, though no one says anything until it becomes apparent how serious it is. The knowledge, and the silence, makes everyone somehow complicit in the tragedy that follows. Are the courtiers too frightened to speak out against Nerone’s debauchery? Or are they willing to wink at it, hoping that it’ll keep him under control?
One person who believes – foolishly – that Nerone can be controlled is Seneca. I was particularly interested in his representation here, because I recently listened to an episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time which focused on the historical Seneca. The role is often played as a true Stoic – a virtuous, upright figure standing against the twisted corruption of the court. But this doesn’t fit with what we know of the real Seneca. Even contemporaries derided him as a hypocrite. He counselled abstinence and restraint, yet lived in luxury, the possessor of a sizeable fortune. Berlin’s Seneca followed suit: stout and smug, he swanks around in a gorgeous doublet and trunk hose with a pink silk sash, his hair in a fussy queue.
Franz-Josef Selig handled the part beautifully – he has a particularly melodious bass, and his acting was very strong (I’ve seen him as Seneca before). When Seneca tries to talk Nerone out of divorcing Ottavia, Selig showed the philosopher’s weakness to the full. Seneca’s gone into this conversation with complacency. He treats the discussion like a professor tackling a hypothetical problem. Nerone can’t do this, or that, because of the law. Think of morals. Of ethics. Seneca loves to hear himself talk, and he’s so happy refuting his former pupil’s suggestions that he fails to notice Nerone’s growing agitation. I got the feeling that Nerone wanted to give his actions the lip-service of law, if nothing else – but Seneca makes this impossible and pushes him over the line. As Seneca crushes him, again and again, Nerone loses it. He becomes shrill, impatient: throwing it all away on one impulsive moment, because he can’t have what he wants any other way.
I’d already seen Max Cencic as Nerone, in the DVD of the 2012 Opéra de Lille production (which I must get round to writing about), but I felt that his Berlin emperor was a little more mature, a bit harder to read, and consequently more threatening. He’s under no illusions about his power: ‘The gods have to share their powers in heaven,’ he tells Seneca at one point, with a flash of glorious arrogance, ‘but I rule alone on earth.’ One of the things this production made me wonder was the extent to which Nerone deliberately allows people to imagine their power over him. I’ve seen Nerones who are exploited by those around them, but this isn’t one of them. No. This Nerone is like a spider at the centre of his web, waiting for his trusting prey to come close enough to strike. Cencic was in fine voice, and I particularly noted that he was vocally well-matched to his Poppea – their Pur ti miro wasn’t the most gorgeous I’ve ever heard (that honour may go to Cencic and Yoncheva in 2012), but it blended very well.
Lots of people think they understand Nerone. Ottavia (Katharina Kammerloher) is one. She’s older than Nerone, a perfect Roman matron, used to being embarrassed by her husband, but gifted at overlooking it until it threatens her own position. Then she, too, snaps, sealing her own fate by planning to assassinate Poppea. Kammerloher managed the elegant detachment of the role well; I was initially indifferent to her voice, but by her tragic farewell aria (Addio Roma), I’d warmed up and found her plight very moving. I also took a little time to get used to Poppea – sung at this performance by Roberta Mameli rather than Anna Prohaska, who appears in the press photos.
Poppea, too, thinks that she has her finger on Nerone’s pulse, and she can’t believe her luck. She’s determined to make the most of being a diversion for a bored emperor, and Mameli made her sexy, vivid and slightly tawdry: a bit brash. This Poppea doesn’t feel like the Roman noblewoman of history: instead, she’s like some street kid who’s worked her way up and now has her eye on the prize – a prize which, in the achieving, loses much of its appeal. I very much liked Poppea’s interaction with her nurse: her loose-limbed, careless self-congratulation; her almost girlish instinct to leap back into her nurse’s arms. And she also comes across as very immature in her dealings with Ottone. There’s no remorse here at all. You don’t get the sense that she loved Ottone; rather, that he was just a stepping stone to power. Ottone, it seems, gathers this pretty quickly: his encounters with Poppea are suffused with a blend of violence and self-loathing, even though he can’t get the wretched woman out of his head.
Xavier Sabata’s Ottone was one of the stars of the show, and that’s pretty unusual, as I usually find Ottone very dull. As a character who spends most of his time moping, he can all too easily fall flat, but Sabata (as I’ve said before) has the vocal and dramatic gifts necessary to give the role a bit of a kick. Simmering with fury, this Ottone was a plausible would-be assassin, sufficiently forceful that he looks tough even when disguised in his girlfriend Drusilla’s clothes. When not at centre stage, he watched in anguish from the omnipresent group of courtiers, occasionally prowling up and down like a panther on a short leash. One result of this intense performance was that I found it harder than usual to believe in this Ottone’s change of heart at the final moment: having been through hell and back again, is this bitter man ever really going to be able to get over Poppea? It seemed unlikely to me.
Perhaps the only person who does get Nerone is Lucano. This is usually a tenor role but was sung here by the excellent baritone Gyula Orendt, buried beneath a disconcerting vertical wig. I’d seen Orendt before – another Monteverdi, actually. Last time I saw him, he was a raw, emotive and powerfully masculine Orfeo. Now he had changed completely. I had to check several times that this lithe, effete figure really was the same guy who, bearded and angst-ridden, had wept real tears while seeking his Euridice. Lucano is always there: waiting, watching, his face set in a taunting smirk. As often happens, Orendt played a dual role, also singing the part of Liberto, who’s sent to give Seneca the order for his suicide. But here the division between the characters wasn’t made clear and I thought it worked very well to see the messenger as Lucano himself. He was, after all, Seneca’s nephew, but he doesn’t waste time with family piety. It seems he’s satisfied, amused even, to see his pompous uncle brought low. Lucano doesn’t need him. He has his own place. But what exactly is that?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a German production, the singing contest made Lucano’s role very clear. Seneca’s death removes the last moderating influence on the court, which descends into open debauchery with a breathless orgy. As emperor and poet sink into a tangle of limbs, I thought back almost fondly to the days when I was naive enough to be shocked by Mathias Vidal groping Philippe Jaroussky. As the Berlin duet finishes, Nerone lies exhausted alongside his satiated courtiers, Poppea sprawled across his chest, Lucano between his thighs. (‘My goodness,’ I said to myself, ‘that wouldn’t happen at Covent Garden.’) Nor does the Berlin Lucano vanish at the end of the contest.
At the very end of the opera, as the strains of Pur ti miro fade away, Poppea stands isolated, struck with the terrible realisation that she’s now become part of the court. In joining the establishment, she’s given up any influence she had over her dangerous lover: Nerone’s now got what he wanted and, given time, he’ll get bored again. Poppea cowers at the side of the stage, cupping her hands over her womb in a moment of foreshadowing (Nero, remember, would kick her to death while she was pregnant). Already losing interest, Nerone walks away from her and Lucano subtly, silently, naturally falls in at his side. It was an interesting take and – given my admiration for Orendt’s voice and acting ability – I was rather pleased to see the character given a larger, more significant role.
Some things didn’t work so well. The prologue with the three deities, Fortuna, Virtù and Amore, was performed by three child soloists from the Staatsoper’s Children’s Chorus (they play Nerone and Ottavia’s children during the rest of the opera). I feel bad pointing this out, as I admire their courage in singing in front of thousands of people at such a young age – but the fact is that Monteverdi is very difficult to sing. Mature singers have enough problems with the dissonance and the lack of musical ‘cushioning’, and these three young ones are still developing. They were sweet, but had a somewhat scattergun approach to keeping in tune. I couldn’t help thinking it would’ve been good to sacrifice the cuteness factor in favour of a blisteringly good opening. My only other real criticism is that Jochen Kowalski should probably accept that his days as a soprano are over. His Nurse was brilliantly acted and very well sung when he resorted to tenor (which he did, unevenly), but his use of falsetto was less convincing, especially alongside Cencic and Sabata, two countertenors in their prime. But these are minor points.
I was prepared for a very strange concept (German directors aren’t renowned for being conventional), but in fact things were very simple. Compared to sharks and parrots and the other odd things we’ve seen in the past, it was positively restrained. Costumes hovered between ‘Baroque’ and ‘nightclub’: ruffs sat alongside leather or gold brocade trousers. In fact, the two nurses represented opposite ends of the spectrum: Mark Milhofer’s Arnalta seemed to be a visual tribute to every nurse ever played by Dominique Visse, with lank straggling hair and a rather scary fake leather sheath dress with leopardskin accents. (Milhofer had a much better costume last time I saw him, in Rossi’s Orpheus.) Kowalski’s Nurse, on the other hand, had the most ruthlessly historical gown on stage: a full-on court mantua with panniers six feet wide.
The decision to keep the cast onstage all the time had some drawbacks – sometimes there was a bit too much going on, when I’d have preferred to focus on a particularly dramatic moment – but it also made a great deal of sense. One of my friends commented beforehand that Poppea, as a dramma per musica, has more in common with classical tragedies than the full-on Baroque opera of Handel and Vivaldi. With this in mind, the ever-present crowd was dramatically logical: they represented the chorus of ancient theatre, watching and commenting on the action that passed before them.
I should note that this particular production presented the 1651 Naples version, which is less familiar to me than the earlier Venetian manifestation. Whether the added drums and brass of last night’s show were down to the Neapolitan score, or the producers of the Staatsoper, I’m not sure; but I rather liked them. Diego Fasolis was at the podium, adding a few members of I Barrochisti to the orchestra for period flavour. There were perhaps one or two occasions where things sounded a bit messy – a trifle more discordant than Monteverdi may have wished – but in general Fasolis ran a tight ship and kept a good pace. Indeed, I fretted that the first half of Pur ti miro was too pacy, but fortunately the repeat was meltingly – indeed, ominously – slow.
I thought this a fine way to begin the Staatsoper’s new chapter: an intelligent production, daring enough to feel fresh and modern, and yet simple enough not to distract from the story. With a generally strong cast, semi-historical costumes and some thought-provoking readings of the characters, it does Monteverdi proud. For me, the greatest testament to its success was the warm reaction of my two friends, neither of whom had seen the opera before, but who came out brimming with enthusiasm (‘So entertaining! So much was going on!’). All in all, a perfect end to a fantastic pit-stop in Berlin, and I’ll be keeping a sharp eye on the Staatsoper’s future programming.