By setting Monteverdis masterpiece composed in 1643 at the age of 76, his last and greatest stage work, yet the first opera based on a historical rather than mythological subject some two thousand years later on, Robert Carsen presents us with an amoral and decadent world. On reflection, a world far too close to our own.
This revival, by Bruno Ravella, of Carsens 2008 production, sparsely set by Michael Levine and lit by Peter van Praet, is dominated from floor to the flies by swathes of incarnadine velvet drapery. These move to depict rooms, corridors and streets where the action unfolds, at the same time symbolising the blood, power and sex that in one form or another drive the story throughout. They are only removed for the striking moral contrast of an incandescent white backdrop to the garden of the noble and pure-minded Seneca.
This is Carsens take on the story whether Monteverdi intended it thus might be questioned but he who writes the history, makes the history. And everything, as Tacitus who handed it down, long after the events, with his own political spin, well knew, is open to interpretation when there is no one else there to contradict it. It was ever thus. It is a take and a setting that could equally occur amongst the circle of some modern day depraved billionaire oligarch, who enjoys wielding power amongst those around him so much that he does pretty much anything he likes when he likes, including murder, simply because he can.
Lucia Cirillo plays the sensual, bi-polar, psychopath Nero superbly, small in stature but intensely focussed and commanding; all perhaps most shockingly portrayed after a homoerotic bathtub duet, arguably the most floridly brilliant and compelling music in the whole opera, with his friend Lucan, played by Peter Gijsbertsen, then casually holding him under to drown.
Even without her indictment by Tacitus, Poppea certainly had more than a little previous. Scheming and power-hungry she may have been, but Christine Karg indicated a more sympathetic side and gave a ravishing performance that Nero had become enthralled by her was hardly surprising. The rest of the excellent Glyndebourne cast were fully employed, most of them with a gender change, role change or costume change, if not a bedroom or bathroom romp, at some stage. Manuela Bisceglie, both as Fortuna and Drusilla was vividly sexy and Louise Poole gave a powerful and dignified account of the cast-aside Octavia yet neither of these characters was stainless: both were also prepared to kill to try to get what they wanted.
Christopher Ainslie was a sympathetic Othone, a tragic figure blackmailed by Octavia into disguising himself as Drusilla to murder Poppea; his scene with Drusilla Io non so dovio vada was beautifully portrayed and sung. Paolo Battaglia gave a splendid and vivid performance as Seneca ordered to die for speaking his mind, yet embracing death with dignity. A special mention must also go to some of the lighter moments brought by understudy Magid El Bushra standing in (to say nothing of cross-dressing and hamming up) in the role of Nutrice.
From the harpsichord Jonathan Cohen conducted the unsung heroes in the pit and conjured a palette of instrumental colour from the short score orchestration left by Monteverde, twelve of the instruments being stringed, with the remaining three woodwinds. The result was that these various period instrument combinations supported the singers perfectly and provided a vibrantly fascinating throbbing undercurrent in the bass line. The music of itself and the playing was quite wonderful.
It was an irony that the previous night GoT had presented a spectacular performance of La Cenerentola, subtitled Goodness triumphant, for the Poppea Monteverdi presents the reverse. Evil, or at least mankinds baser defects of character appear to have won out in this story, and it is an amoral version of Amore which declares itself triumphant.
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