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28.1.05

William Christie's Poppea in Lyon

There is something special about the operas from a composer's last years. Among other examples, Strauss has Capriccio, Verdi has Otello and Falstaff, Wagner has Parsifal, and they are all works made by composers with a lifetime of experience on the stage, in the twilight moments. Claudio Monteverdi composed L'Incoronazione di Poppea (.PDF file) when he was 75 years old. This spectacular opera is now receiving a superlative performance, at the hands of William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. After their staging of Handel's Hercules at the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Baroque performance group is performing a staged version of Monteverdi's final opera at the Opéra de Lyon.

Marie-Aude Roux has a review (Poppée, immortelle courtisane, couronnée par William Christie, January 24) for Le Monde, in which she asks the question, why is this opera so popular right now? Perhaps we see in our own times the reflection of that "cynical power incarnated by Nero"? She refers first to another recent production of Poppea, by René Jacobs and the Concerto Vocale, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris (see my post Monteverdi in the House, from October 24, 2004). Here is a partial translation of what else she has to say:

It would be difficult to make something any more different [from the Jacobs production] than the new production offered by the Opéra de Lyon, directed by Bernard Sobel. The three acts take place in an ingenious set of faded planets, cut from Venitian paper, huddling around the scene or opening up according to the action. The cast, all from the Opéra de Lyon's Nouveau Studio, is young but already very professional. One will take away the vocal and scenic artistry in the Poppea of Danielle De Niese (who looks like Angelina Jolie), the beautiful singing of Judih Van Wanroij (Drusilla), the sensitivity of countertenor Tim Mead (Ottone), and the adorable Ana Quintans (L'Amore).

Mirko Guadagnini's Nerone would benefit by leaving some of his virility in the dressing room, Mariana Rewerski's Ottavia by mastering her intonation, but we remain in admiration of the progress made by the young bass Joao Fernandez (Seneca), who has refined and ripened his singing since we first heard him in Le Jardin des voix, the academy inaugurated by Bill Christie in November 2002. Like René Jacobs, Christie opted for a version of L'Incoronazione with a reduced instrumentation (16 instruments). This time, the visual soberness demanded by Bernard Sobel has reinforced the dynamic and sensuous reading of the Master of Les Arts Florissants, magnifying the power, at once seductive and edifying, of this opera of flesh, sex, and blood.
Another review comes from Martine D. Mergeay (Ils font un si beau couple..., January 25) for La Libre Belgique. She notes that there will be a third production of the opera this season in France, conducted by Ivor Bolton and directed by David Alten at the Palais Garnier back in Paris (it opened on January 26). The first thing she singles out about the Lyon production is the casting (my translation):
No stars (in contrast with the jaw-dropping casting at the Champs Elysées) but a group of young international singers, selected over a period of months by William Christie and the Lyon team and being presented for the first time after nine weeks of rehearsal. There are some familiar names (if you can call them that) from Christie's Jardin des Voix and all clearly belong to "Bill's School," where the affect rises wondrously out of a completely controlled technique and an aesthetic of simplicity. Nothing, in this method, gets in the way of or distracts from the flow between the writing (here by Monteverdi) and the expression of the singers, and the result is miraculous. If you add to that the choice of a true (and very beautiful) tenor for the role of Nerone, the gift of the most beautiful, most sensual, most talented of Poppea's, and Sobel's excellent acting direction, you also understand why you are led, ineluctably, to love this couple with such a monstrous reputation.
That's a lot of superlatives. Just so we don't think that it's perfect, she goes on to note some reservations. Mainly, the heaviness of Lucio Fanti's set clashes violently with the opera's celestial qualities. The theme of stars and constellations, she adds, can be justified, but the materials used and the somber colors "create an opaque and cumbersome environment that is not saved at all by A. J. Weissbard's skillful lighting." She also praises Christie's direction and pared-down orchestration:
Sixteen musicians total, a game of aesthetic stripping down, the recourse to very characterized timbers, the regular confrontation with silence: by his choices, Christie realizes a texture at once refined and powerful, whose parsimony of sound at times reinforces the bitter, sometimes violent, aspects of the music (completely different by comparison to the symphonic continuo of Jacobs).
Finally, there was a review (Le triomphe de l'amour sincère, January 24) by Christian Merlin for Le Figaro, which gives some interesting background on this production (my translation):
Think back to William Christie, last summer, worried about the turn of events that had just occurred in his work with Peter Stein for L'Incoronazione di Poppea planned for Lyon this winter: the German director had wanted, in effect, to do away with the comic scenes that, in his opinion, were like a hair in the soup, when it is precisely that mixture of tones that makes the piece great! What had to happen happened: we soon learned that Stein had thrown in the towel, replaced by Bernard Sobel.
Sobel, he also notes, is the founder of the Théâtre de Gennevilliers. He classifies McVicar's production as a "reading full of eye winking, like a Hollywood sitcom," which Sobel contrasts with "humility and clarity." Here is a translation of a few more excerpts:
But what is really striking about this vision is that it goes against most other recent interpretations, which make L'Incoronazione di Poppea into something immoral and cynical. Here Poppea never appears like an ambitious and manipulative plotter, no more than Nerone is characterized as a dictator: political problems and the struggle for power are avoided. Nerone and Poppea represent the triumph of love, a sincere love without afterthoughts, that ends up being reaffirmed. It's an approach that could certainly be criticized, but it is well defended by a sober acting direction, where each secondary character is individualized, and by subtle illuminations. Perhaps everything is rosy here, but is it not a possible approach to such a rich text?
That choice is also supported, he adds, by casting a tenor instead of a mezzo soprano as Nerone, "gaining in credibility what is lost in ambiguity." He is more critical of the secondary singers: mezzo soprano Mariana Rewerski (Ottavia) "does not have the weight of a scorned empress," and countertenor Tim Mead (Ottone) "is not yet battle-hardened for large halls." However, New York tenor Marc Molomot (Arnalta) is "a sort of Baroque crooner, an excellent actor-singer, capable of playing derision as well as murmuring his lullaby to make it the emotional heart of the opera." He also makes the greatest observation about the assistance of William Christie's group:
As usual in Monteverdi, William Christie does not conduct but remains at the keyboard, refusing to take a solo curtain call: the work was accomplished bit by bit, he has only to enjoy giving the right start. There could be perhaps more opulence and bite in the continuo, but Les Arts Florissant are a marvelous tutor for these young things. It is enough, to know how much the pit is listening to what is happening on stage, to watch violinist Myriam Gevers, who whenever she is not playing, is mouthing the words of all the characters!
The last performances of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Opéra de Lyon, are January 28 and 30. By all I have seen, opera fans in Lyon have one of the cutting-edge companies of Europe in their city, a tone set certainly since the opening of their new Jean Nouvel theater (see my January 21 post on the DVD of their inaugural production of Contes d'Hoffman). The rest of this season's top-notch program includes a new production of Emmanuel Chabrier's Le Roi malgré lui (1887); two operas by Hans Werner Henze, Le petit Poucet (1980) and the French premiere of L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (2003); and a cycle of operas by Leoš Janáček, none of which I mentioned in my Preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005, including Jenůfa (1904), Kát'a Kabanová (1921), and Vec Makropulos (1926, The Makropulos Affair), all productions originally directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff at the Glyndebourne Festival.

UPDATE:In English, see Francis Carlin, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Opéra de Lyon (London Financial Times, January 25):
Left in the lurch by Peter Stein, intendant Serge Dorny called in Bernard Sobel, a respected figure in French theatre. Pressed for time perhaps, Sobel has come up with a po-faced staging that is achingly short on humour and dramatic pulse. That is a pity because he's otherwise in tune with a permissive libretto. His Poppea is not a harlot but a patrician who's doing the natural thing for her time and playing the sexual politics game with remarkable success. The people she counters, Otho, Octavia and Seneca, are wet or embittered losers. It makes sense, for once, of Poppea's ultimate triumph but Sobel's stage directions are parsimonious in gesture, movement and depth.

William Christie, who spends more and more performance time admonishing unrepentant coughers, is exiled to the extreme left of the pit, hardly the best place to control things. Yet his Arts Florissants are disciplined and spice up Monteverdi's original sonorities.

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