Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea. DVD, Decca. Glyndebourne Festival 2008, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, production by Robert Carsen. With Danielle DeNiese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Iestyn Davies (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca) and Marie Arnet (Drusilla)
This DVD of L’incoronazione di Poppea, taken from the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, pointedly opens with scenes of the monied classes engaging in the legendary ritual of the Glyndebourne picnic over the credits. Then, in the prologue, glittery evening-gowned Fortuna proceeds to squabble with nun Virtù over a seat in the first row. Subtle it ain’t. This depraved world of Poppea and Nerone, it’s yours. Good evening, privileged assholes!
Eh, except not really. Maybe director Robert Carsen didn’t want to give the impression of biting the hand that is feeding him, because what follows is not debauched but classy, somber, elegant and sexy in an oh-so-tasteful way. Never has Nero’s amoral Rome been so beautifully boring.
The action takes place in front of a plain red curtain, and billows of red cloth periodically flood the stage. They are frequently joined by the allegorical figure of Love from the prologue (can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on omnipresent Love figures NOW? they are always cutesy and never help us understand anything). But this isn’t an opera solely about love: it’s about the deadly nexus of love and politics, it’s about power run amok, it’s about the costs of moral victory and of revenge. Carsen’s lack of interest in the larger moral and social world of Rome, his reduction of the plot to a domestic drama, makes this a much less interesting, and much less funny, opera than it can be. Poppea and Nero’s relationship is sexy enough, but it has no context.
The key figure in this is the most confusing one: Seneca, arguably the only moral character in the whole opera. Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason? Here he is an absent-minded professor of unclear authority or importance, his world an empty (love-red cloth bereft) stage littered with books, a dramatic blank, and is greeted by a general shrug by everyone. His death–the dramatic turning point of the opera when everything starts really going to hell–is visually striking but emotionally empty. Similarly, Ottavia storms mightily but her proximity to the bed Poppea and Nerone just vacated identifies her as a spurned wife, not a deposed empress. Servants run around carrying clothes in nearly every scene, Drusilla carries the dress she will give to Ottone at her first appearance, but I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, because power is a real commodity here, not a matter of external appearances.
|Non morir, Seneca… actually none of us really care if you die or not.|
The general aesthetic of generic mid-century propriety, while pretty, seems like an odd choice in itself. Nerone rules a world of inebriated excess and uninhibited id, not such austerely tailored precision. This tidiness is telling, as Carsen seems happier to ignore the opera’s stranger ambiguities than confront them. Nerone and Poppea’s relationship is pure sweet love, the violence in Nero’s personality segregated to other people and Poppea lacking in any ulterior motives. This is a production that goes to the trouble to costume a tenor Nutrice as a Margaret Thatcher look-alike and then for much of the opera fail to see that there is comic potential in this. Even Drusilla’s propensity to burst into “Felice cor mio” at inappropriate moments, an obvious joke if there ever was one, isn’t played for the laughs. By making everyone noble, Carsen robs them of their humanity.
|Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia|
It is in the Nerone-Lucano scene, a homoerotic non-sequitur whose weirdness is of an extremity that is impossible to paper over, that Carsen takes one of his only risks and manages to come up with something interesting. It starts as a deranged bachelor party, and eventually ends up with torture and death by drowning in a bathtub. It’s disturbing, I’m not really sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely Nero and it’s right for this opera. Unfortunately it’s the only scene I can say that of.
|I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla. You’re too damn prim.|
Except for that pesky lack of vision, there is much to enjoy. The acting is strong and detailed, the singing is generally idiomatic and good. Danielle DeNiese’s Monteverdi stylings have occasionally been touched by the goddess Céline Dion, and her voice sits too high for this almost-mezzo role. While her Poppea is a somewhat one-dimensional saucy flirt, without many secondary characteristics such as self-doubt or ambition, she makes up for her lack of musical and dramatic subtlety with her considerable charisma. Much better is Alice Coote’s impulsive and psychopathic Nero, the definite highlight of the performance, whose rage unfortunately never seems to interact with other characters. Tamara Mumford (who I have seen excel in many smaller roles at the Met) is an impressive Ottavia who the production similarly never allows full, well, reign. Iestyn Davis a vocally fabulous and typically wimpy Ottone, and Paolo Battaglia as Seneca sings fine but is dramatically completely unmemorable.
I have no idea how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows Emmanuelle Haïm’s vague hand-waving, but it does the trick for this most glorious of opera scores. The mix of lutes, theorbos, and harpsichord in the continuo is well-judged and colorful. Tempos tend towards the slow but not excessively so. The orchestra is augmented with recorders and cornettos but is still small. Unlike many Poppeas I have no issue with cuts or with deployment of roles–mezzo Nero and countertenor Ottone is my preferred arrangement,* and there are very few cuts–so it is a shame that the production falls so short, as this is an ideal DVD is many other ways.
Poppea is like Don Giovanni: so much going on that it’s hard to find one where everything is right, and the safe ones are the most boring of all.
*This is often a key issue. I generally don’t like countertenor Neros, it’s meaty part that sounds better with the meaty voice of a mezzo, more “manly” than any actual man (now there’s some gender trouble!).