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Poppea: Alden in Barcelona

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, M. Persson, S. Connolly, J. Domènech, F.-J. Selig, Gran Teatre del Liceu, H. Bicket

(released on May 29, 2012)
Opus Arte OA1073D | 3h03
One can count on David Alden to create striking, sometimes indelible images in his opera productions. Who could forget the leopard pincushions in his Radamisto in Santa Fe, or the Angelica as Paris Hilton in his Orlando in Munich? Alden's notorious production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, which debuted in Cardiff and Munich (reviewed in live CD format last week) and later went to Paris, was recorded in the 2009 revival at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Alden gives us one of those indelible images right at the first scene of the prologue, when the character of Fortune climbs up a staircase toward a bright red couch at center stage. The goddesses wear enormous platform shoes, with Fortune sporting a bald cap and lacy parasol and Virtue, aged, hobbling on crutches with her neck supported by a brace as if she had just been in a rear-end collision (costumes by Buki Shiff). The gods are all absurd, with costumes right out of horror and space movies: Mercurio as the Mummy with winged platform boots, exiting by falling into a hole; Pallas is like one of the sexy aliens who might have seduced Captain Kirk. For the first two acts the opera takes place in a sort of office building atrium or parking structure (sets by Paul Steinberg). In the opening scene a large street lamp protrudes from the wall, and Amore, with large bronze wings, sits atop a revolving door. This is whimsical enough for the prologue, which could take place just about anywhere, but then there is no set change for the opening of Act I, as Ottone walks in with a bouquet of flowers. He lies down on the sofa, folded out into a sort of bed, with the two guards asleep on it, and in the space of a few seconds, the staging turns mostly nonsensical.

The staging obviously limits the possible audience of this otherwise fine performance to those viewers who will not object to a little postmodern foolishness. The cast certainly ranks among the uniformly best of any recording, beginning at the top with the two women in the leads. Miah Persson, who has impressed us before in Haydn and Mozart, is a gorgeous, seductive Poppea. The visual reference seems to be Anita Ekberg in La dolce vita, at least until she appears in the seduction scene, where she becomes like a Bond villain, in a shiny black sheath with a wig of Medusa-like dreadlocks. The voice is extremely clear and beautiful, with slight issues at the top, lacking one layer of beauty. Sarah Connolly is just excellent as a sort of vampiric Nerone, her interpolated high-flying embellishments all the justification one needs for casting the part as a trouser role (rather than using a countertenor, a voice part that is really no more masculine, after all).

The rest of the cast is equally fine, either musically or dramatically or both, down to the bit parts. There is slight paleness from countertenor Jordi Domènech as Ottone, but he has a supercilious, slightly perverse quality that fits in with the admittedly odd staging. The straight-laced librarian of Drusilla (mousy-voiced Ruth Rosique), all too ready to leap into bed with Ottone (literally), is a good match. Bass Franz-Josef Selig has more than enough gravitas (down to a low C, if lacking some of the agility needed for the runs) as a sort of Communist intellectual Seneca, with nerdy spectacle-wearing students always in tow -- for their "Non morir, Seneca" trio, they walk around playing with yo-yos. Dominique Visse is still camping it up as Arnalta, here as a hilarious drag queen with crazy costumes, and doubling in the role of Ottavia's cigarette-smoking nurse, rather ludicrously in an actual nurse's uniform, complete with red crosses.

Maite Beaumont is a matronly, even shrewish Ottavia, with a lovely, plaintive, sometimes caustic wail in her voice and plenty of Italian hand-shaking. A single hanging chandelier is enough to evoke a well-appointed Roman apartment, with a stammering bellhop-costumed Valletto (William Berger), who goes a little over the top in his criticism of Seneca, only made worse by the whistling, dancing, and so on of Seneca's flunkies. This was a casting mistake when it came to that lovely duet the Valletto has with the Damigella (Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij), which was played too comically. Worse, it overlapped with the Lucano-Nerone duet, which is performed like some insane acid trip (for Guy de Mey's Lucan, think of a cross between Dom Deluise and his fey herald in Mel Brooks's History of the World). The costumes range among various time periods, with the guards in fake Roman centurion outfits, as if they are greeting tourists at the Colosseum, and others vaguely in the 1950s Italy of La dolce vita. Returning to familiar tropes, Alden likes shiny surfaces, including a polished floor and a large wall for the interplay of reflections and shadows. Most of the press photos were taken of the set for the third act, marked by its rolling floor, a chessboard twisted like a Möbius strip.

Harry Bicket leads a suave and varied performance in the pit, not with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the English Concert, but with the Liceu Theater's Baroque orchestra. He uses some recorders as well as strings in his orchestra, plus great variety in the continuo group, cutting about 15 minutes out of the score (including Ottone's "I miei subiti sdegni" -- Act II, scene 8).

David Alden, the director of the production under review, has taken issue with some of my assessment of his staging. Please see the comments section to read his point of view.

Ivor Bolton (Munich)
William Christie (Madrid)


davidzalden said...

What a shame you completely miss the point of this production -- I do not understand how you can ignore the shifts between comedy and serious scenes. I have followed Monteverdi and Busenello rather closely in their Shakesperian multiplicity of tones and sharp mood changes. I know it is pointless to comment on a review, one man's subjective reaction, but I am very proud of this particular production (which has played to critical acclaim in Munich, the Paris Opera, Welsh National Opera, New Israeli Opera, Barcelona, etc.), and hope that this excellent filming of a great cast will reach a large audience (no, I don't get any royalties, indeed I waived my fee to get the DVD made). I am just disappointed when I read something which so completely fails to connect with what I have tried to achieve, and so hopelessly muddles all the references and images.

Charles T. Downey said...

@DavidAlden -- I am so honored that you have commented on this review. I actually loved the production (and obviously the musical and vocal performances), but I focused on the unusual aspects to give readers an understanding of what you were doing (something that the packaging of the DVD, a little deceptively, does not really do at all). It is only fair in a review to let traditionalists know what they will be getting with this kind of staging. For the record, I do not consider myself a traditionalist, although I do object to concept stagings that do not really consider the libretto and music deeply: your productions do not strike me that way.

As I wrote in my review of your staging of Radamisto in Santa Fe, your choices are generally based on careful thought. I made my best attempt to understand the references and images, which you say are hopelessly muddled -- and you would know. I would be so pleased to publish as an addendum to this review some brief thoughts from you about what exactly are the references and images you were going for in this staging. You can publish it yourself here in the comments section, or I will add it directly to the end of my review so that anyone who reads my review will also read what you have to say. I cordially invite you to reply.

Charles T. Downey said...

I should add that I was mostly puzzled by what you were going for in Poppea, which is obvious from your reaction to my review. Unlike your productions of Jenůfa and Lucia di Lammermoor here in Washington, which I also loved, the interpretation just struck me as much more opaque. So, again, I would very much like to hear your thoughts on Poppea.

davidzalden said...

But when you write that "the staging turns mostly nonsensical" (after the Prologue) it really does not appear that you loved it, as you write above. I don't actually care whether you loved it or hated it, but I do expect a reviewer to be aware of the shifts in mood and performance if they are trying to evaluate it. Many scenes in this Poppea are deadly serious, and are performed in a deadly serious and focused way, thus providing stark contrast to the more camp and absurd episodes (just as, in my opinion, Monteverdi and Busenello alternate between low comedy, commedia dell'arte, sophisticated social and philosophical discourse and high tragedy in an alarming and stimulating way). If you feel the staging is "mostly nonsensical" then I can't help but feel that the whole thing eluded you.

I am pleased you liked my Jenufa and Lucia productions in Washington in the last seasons. Jenufa was premiered in Dallas (although since then it has played in Tel Aviv, Houston, and London) so was conceived for an American audience. Lucia was premiered in London at ENO (although it too has since begun playing around the globe) so was conceived for a British audience. Poppea was conceived for a German audience originally -- an audience I frankly consider more educated and sophisticated in their ability to absorb mixed theatrical signals than the average British or American audience (of course this a gross over-generalization but basically true I think). I am always aware of the audience and culture I am speaking to -- so perhaps this somewhat complicated and decadent Poppea just doesn't speak to your sensibility.

Charles T. Downey said...

But when you write that "the staging turns mostly nonsensical" (after the Prologue) it really does not appear that you loved it

Perhaps it is perverse of me, but I do actually enjoy many things that do not make sense. When an opera production makes me laugh -- not just once but many times -- and wonder what on earth what is happening on the stage has to do with the story of the opera, I may still be entertained.

I do expect a reviewer to be aware of the shifts in mood and performance if they are trying to evaluate it.

I have written elsewhere about the mix of comic and tragic in 17th-century opera -- before the genre split more strictly into comic and tragic forms. Poppea is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon, I agree, in the virtuosic way that it shifts back and forth. However, I do think that the way that this production exaggerates those shifts, with such absurd imagery, does not actually make the viewer appreciate the subtlety of what Monteverdi and Busenello were doing -- it skews it out of proportion by drawing such attention to it. The effect, unintended obviously, was to render even the serious scenes a little ridiculous. Of course, it does not help that some of the serious scenes have their odd moments: the three orange-haired students in the "Non morir, Seneca" trio, the Lucano-Nerone duet is another.

Would you be willing to explain where some of this imagery came from, what you are referring to? Mercurio as the Mummy, the Valletto as bellhop, Poppea as Medusa, Arnalta as sass-talking drag queen, Lucano as someone on a 60s drug trip, the three shorts-sporting nerds (Tintin?) as Seneca's students, Fellini's Rome films -- I know I did not guess correctly. How does whatever it is illuminate the story of Poppea?