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Poppea in Paris, Again

This has been quite a season for Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have staged the opera at the Opéra de Lyon (see my post from January 28, 2005), only a few months after René Jacobs and the Concerto Vocale did it in Paris (see my post from October 24, 2004). Well, right now, the opera is back for an Opéra de Paris production directed by David Alden at the Palais Garnier, which opened on January 26 and continues through February 22. The first review I read (Un Monteverdi shakespearien, January 28) was from Le Figaro (my translation):

The premieres are piling up and are quite different from one another at the Opéra de Paris. The day after an annoying Magic Flute, Gérard Mortier invited us to a truly fascinating theatrical moment with Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, in a staging by David Alden that had already triumphed in Munich. In Paul Steinberg's fascinating sets (this checkerwork of vanishing perspectives!), Alden creates a profoundly musical staging where each gesture is timed with Monteverdi's dramatic rhythm. In a sort of stylized luxury palace, the characters, costumed like 20th-century jet-setters, exist with an irresistable force of attraction and revulsion. Staring with opera singers, they have made great actors, able to play comedy and tragedy, burlesque and violence: a physical and sensual portrayal, at the very least for the most erotic of operas in the repertory.

This haggard Nerone, unable to control his impulses, this femme fatale Poppea who holds him in her sexual power and leads the others around by th enose, these women on the verge of a nervous breakdown who break their heels, we will never forget them. Alden makes them into Shakespearean characters, not hesitating to overplay that mixture of genres that makes Monteverdi so audacious. But Alden takes care to balance grotesquerie with gravity, and oneirism with realism. The character of Seneca thus finds just the right mixture of true compassion and the ranting of an alcoholic and sententious philosopher, whose servile disciples note down everything he says with ridiculous fury. Many images will remain with us, not only for their artistic beauty but for their expressivity: when the set vanishes to leave Poppea to fall asleep on a green background (Pat Collins's magnificent lighting), when Octavia says farewell barefooted in a black gown, when Chronos's clock comes down to watch over the reunited lovers, time's advance is suspended.
L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Opéra de Paris, 2005

Anna Caterina Antonacci, who was Nerone in the fall production in Paris (at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées), returns to the role of Poppea at the Garnier ("she is the incarnation of feminine seduction, a true Hollywood vamp"). Another review (Avec audace et fantaisie, David Alden couronne "Poppée" à Garnier, January 30), by Pierre Gervasoni Le Monde, has similar praise for Antonacci. Although I love the long arm of the theorbo projecting into the image of the production shown here, Gervasoni notes the mixed bag of Ivor Bolton and his orchestra: "the pit is full of good musicological intentions, with a mixture of modern and ancient instruments" (my translation):
We might reproach David Alden for making light of the work's dramatic canvas. If we did, we would focus on some effects, sometimes daring, without considering the total coherence of the whole project. Why deplore that Poppea's Nurse is a Red Cross nurse and that Seneca's friends have Tintin's bunched hairstyle? These eccentricities are part of the general fantasy that never seems to be at odds with the text. Notably when the chorus sings love's praises, at the end of the third act, with Pinocchio noses. In giving the impression of taking his subject on a detour through rollicking fantasy, David Alden is proceeding exactly as would Monteverdi, who departed from the semantic axis by using multiple vocalises. Scenic or vocal, ornamentation authorizes all sorts of excess. Especially in the case of a permanently gray aesthetic like the flat Italian opera of the early 17th century. The American director is thus authentically Baroque.
In her review (Le Couronnement de Poppée: Monteverdi chez les Marx Brothers, February 3) for Webthea: Le Journal des Spectacles, Caroline Alexander notes that this production is not really new, since it dates back to 1997. She makes an interesting observation about the set design:
You really shouldn't trust the closing image published just about everywhere in the press and on the Web [including here], that giant mosaic checkerboard in undulating perspective, which is, it's true, very beautiful. It comes down to clothe the magnificent love duet of Nerone and Poppea, finally crowned, as if to make us forget the ugliness of the sets, costumes, and props of the preceding scenes: the bright red sofa-bed softened to receive the princes of Rome, the gods of Olympos, and their love games; the highway lamp projecting from a square-tiled Métro station; the dilapidated office furniture of a company going out of business; the revolving glass doors of an old-style luxury hotel above which the allegory of Love reigns while Fortune slowdances with shaved head, and Virtue, pregnant like a balloon, hobbles on two crutches. Octavia wears heels that even the Queen of England wouldn't dare to be seen in, Seneca is an old drunkard flanked by disciples in shorts and blond hairswoops à la Tintin, and Poppea's lady-in-waiting Arnalta parades around like a drag queen.
Although she disparages the modernist tendencies of the production ("Monteverdi dragged down to the gutter by the Marx Brothers"), the cast is "practically faultless" and the music is top-notch. According to her, English conductor Ivor Bolton is leading an orchestra composed of players from the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Monteverdi-Continuo-Ensemble. However, not all of the reviewers were thrilled. In his review («Poppée»: le flop à Paris, la grâce à Lyon, January 29) for Libération, Eric Dahan thought that the Paris production fared quite poorly by comparison to the Christie production in Lyon:
Justifiably booed, the Garnier's Poppea seals a "neon week" at the Opéra de Paris, beginning Monday with the Magic Flute at the Bastille. Corresponding to Ivor Bolton's stiff and angular conductor is a shop window aesthetic. The director David Alden, obviously still not recovered from his DVD with the Pet Shop Boys, prefers to parasitize Monteverdi's music with visually striking and agressive scenes, matching apple green with fuchsia, checkerboard with neon. The sort of absurd things that perhaps used to provoke a few nice old ladies in Salzburg fifteen years ago today seem in pitifully intello-bourgeois bad taste. In spite of Anna Caterina Antonacci's vocally searing Poppea, Monteverdi is missing along with the absent subscribers.
The criticism of the press is mentioned by Philippe Herlin, in his review (Superbe Couronnement !, January 26) for ("Based on a quick glance at the reviews, we went with some trepidation to this second production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, denounced as a simplistic shocker"), but he decides to put what he saw into the appropriate context:
Sexual ambiguity is at the heart of Baroque opera and of L'Incoronazione: old women are played by men (Dominique Visse as Arnalta and Ottavia's nurse), young men by women, without that being a strict rule. Nerone is played by a countertenor, Jacek Laszczkowski, while recently at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées Anna Caterina Antonacci had that role and this time she performs Poppea! Cherubino in Figaro and Octavian in Rosenkavalier are only late memories of this tradition. The "Baroquies," by returning to the text, have rediscovered the genre's indecision, this "artistic flux," this vocality full of surprises. By using a few heels, a few spangles, and a few "transgenre" attitudes to adapt a modern term, director David Alden does nothing but add a level to that ambiguity, always appropriately and with humor.
Herlin's theory is that the press wanted to see a more gratuitous provocation. He notes that the Parisian critical world, for both this opera and Magic Flute, seems to have spread the word to knock the production ("sometimes the same phrases pass from one paper to the next"). This is "a crowd mentality hardly suited to the critical spirit," he says, and the public's welcoming of this production in spite of it, is justifiably noteworthy.

In English, see Francis Carlin, L'incoronazione di Poppea Paris Opera (Garnier) (London Financial Times, January 28):
Parisians do not like camp. David McVicar's production of Monteverdi's last opera was jeered in October at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and now David Alden has met the same fate. This is unfair because his use of radical kitsch is altogether more sophisticated and his manipulation of the singers faultlessly choreographed. In any case, this classic staging dates from 1997, when it was first seen in Cardiff and Munich. McVicar's approach now looks like a pale copy of an industry template.

This opera will always test a director's skill at dosing tragedy and comedy. Alden overstates the comic, with the help of Buki Shiff's sensationally dizzy costumes, but he knows when to turn the tap off, as with Seneca's monologue (Robert Lloyd, out of this world) and Octavia's proud farewell to Rome. That said, Alden's recipe is the top rung on the send-it-up ladder. Innovative stagings from now on will have to reverse gears and get more serious, while avoiding the trap Bernard Sobel has fallen into in Lyons (FT review, January 25). Sobriety can easily translate into dullness.
Some people are so hard to please.

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