bemf round 9: gender-strict pg-7 Poppea

Having such a positive experience with Ulisse, I decided at the last minute to book a ticket for the last show of “L’incoronazione di Poppea” despite existing reservations: Unlike Ulisse where the orchestra plays a very big role, Poppea has what i consider low to minimal orchestral participation, depending on the ensemble’s take. In the latter case with minimal orchestra, it’s entirely up to the singers + staging to keep the plot flowing and coherent. It’s not a coincidence that I like Ottone’s music in the first act the best: to me it has the most interaction with the orchestra, similar to the entire Ulisse I’d say (am saying this from a listening point of view, i put the headset on and *listen* for hours on end at work). And unlike with Ulisse where I fell in love with immediately, I’ve tried many times unsuccessfully to plow through Poppea. Here’s an example of two separate orchestras’ takes on the duet of Ottone and Drusilla

Orchestra-heavy (Teatro Liceu 2006):

Orchestra-light (Teatro Liceu 2009):

The BEMF ensemble took the orchestra-light approach, which if listen to clip above you will notice the singers are on their own vocally (and through acting) to carry out quite a bit of “conversational” recitative + singing and to move the story forward. At this point, it’s worth to remind ourselves this is a story of adultery, deceit, murder, hunger for power, and other variety of immorality. It’s here that I find the staging and acting inconsistent, capped by almost a Disney-like love duet in the end that at left 1 member of the audience in front of me extremely happy (he launched a big “WOW” and clapped wildly at the loving couple). I have no problem with love duets at the end of an opera! (e.g., Ulisse!) But here it’s portrayed in such a way we are somehow to forget everything Nerone had done and accept the happily-ever-after ending. I dug a bit on the net and here’s what seemed to follow this love duet in history:

From their knowledge of Roman history, audiences in Venice would have recognised that the apparent triumph of love over virtue, celebrated by Nerone and Poppea in the closing duet, was in reality hollow, and that not long after this event Nerone kicked the pregnant Poppea to death.

To not offer any hint of this is puzzling. To elaborate, it appeared each singer was somewhat on their own regarding his/her character’s behavior / musical phrasing and, in combination with the orchestra-light take, resulted in a disjointed show. Nerone constantly “looks” rather neurotic (perhaps constantly high on drug?) “screeching” his tantrums while his guards appear to have double personality with having deep compassion for Seneca in one moment yet turning ruthless wanting to execute Drusilla immediately in the next. Opposite of neurotic Nerone, almost everyone has this strange way with their hands (and some with their walk), which, already from Ulisse’s staging, made me wonder if that’s how people moved about in the 1600’s . Bellow is a collage of samples from both operas. In fact, the hand thing seems to be a prerequisite for BEMF, and you can tell Amanda Forsythe had it down completely (she’s walking about all the time with these gestures) while bass J.T.Ward still needs to work on his (walking). Some of them even took the bow at curtain call walking this way!

The prerequisite hand gesture. ©BEMF

The prerequisite hand gesture. ©BEMF

In addition to the zen-like walking with this hand thing, the whole show appeared to be very sterile with a focus on playing “safe”. No inappropriate touching is allowed, petting on the shoulders seems to be acceptable. I’m not asking for wrestling on the ground, stripping, etc. That’s not necessary and in fact might not be offering anything if simply done for the shock value. On the other hand, making everything looking “smooth” and safe is.. well, i fell asleep.. first time since La Forza in Munich last month. But prior to crashing, I got quite upset when it became clear part of the sterilization package is to ensure the gender-strict policy is adhered to. Yes, I was debating skipping this on the ground of systematic casting of countertenors in place of mezzos.. That is until I discovered there IS a mezzo available! But of course she can only be either Poppea’s or Ottavia’s maid. I doubt if it ever occurred to the organizer that she could have also sung Ottone, or God forbid, Nerone! There is however an excess of countertenors so one of the nurses in fact was sung in cross-dressed format.. except he was wrapped up so nicely up to and include the head to make sure no-one in the audience would be offended:
(I had an urge to include a couple snapshots of the same nurse from two different staging)

Arnalta, Teatro Liceu 2009; Nutrice, Teatro Liceu, 2006.  Nutrice, BEMF 2015 ©BEMF

Arnalta, Teatro Liceu 2009; Nutrice, Teatro Liceu, 2006. Nutrice, BEMF 2015 ©BEMF

Individually there are moments of great singing: José Lemos’s first “aria” accompanied by the superb orchestra, Laura Pudwell as gender-appropriate nurse Arnalta with her aria on getting an upgrade in status, Zachary Wilder (i can recognize his voice anytime! very nice phrasing!) as one of Nerone’s guards, Christian Immler as the stern Seneca. Strangely I was not overwhelmingly impressed with Amanda Forsythe’s part though i think it has, entirely, due to the confusion of the portrayal of the character. Perhaps if they have more time to develop so we can understand the mindset of Poppea better her singing would make more sense to me. The one glimpse we get of a soft Poppea who did care for Ottone was during their first encounter when she sang about the roll of the dice, which she acted very nicely and her phrasing made complete sense. I was hoping to see how it developed but it was simply hung there.

Post-opera, cool Stray, her charming sister, and I went for some dinner at my favorite Thai joint to discuss further the production. We pondered whether Amanda Forsythe can play a bitchy Poppea or if her voice is too sweet hence her Poppea came out looking like cinderella. We all agreed she can play any role as both her vocal acting and stage presence are fully equipped. Thus it implied she meant for her character to be this way (having a soft spot for Ottone, wanting the throne, as she discussed in this short interview.) To the various inconsistencies I mentioned above, Stray suspected they had ideas but ran short in rehearsal time, to which I added that is probably why they didn’t have time to process in their thoughts on how to portray such and such characters as non 1-dimensional: When you’re still processing the details your portrayal would come out as confusing.

Allow me to indulge in Goddesses: (left) Teatro Liceu 2009, (mid) Teatro Liceu 2006, (right) BEMF 2015 ©BEMF

Allow me to indulge in Goddesses: (left) Teatro Liceu 2009, (mid) Teatro Liceu 2006, (right) BEMF 2015 ©BEMF

In summary, for a traditionalist looking for a safe production with happy gender-strict lovebirds, this is the production for you. For me, it was a bit disjointed, alarmingly gender-stuck, and too sterile. It was explained to me that their goal is to reproduce the scenery “as close as possible” to what might have been during the time of Monteverdi (or whichever composers for their operas). This suggests 6, 10, 20 years from now the stagings would remain the same: same clothing, same hand movements, same sterility. Perhaps it is meant for the targeted audience who wants same-ness. In a post-opera conversation with an acquaintance it was suggested to me that for the “type of stagings” I crave for Germany is the place to go, and indeed that’s where I have been every year since discovery of opera in 2009 :-).

bemf round 4-8: concerts @ Jordan Hall

After Ulisse I pretty much camped at Jordan Hall for the rest of the week attending some SUPERB concerts!! Here’re some bullet-format comments, with some updates coming later today once I retrieve photos from the camera (Edit 24.jun.2015: now photos added:)

Thursday 11/Jun/2015 at 5pm: 20 lutes! great fun!! check out a glimpse of their encore 🙂

Thursday 11/Jun/2015 at 8pm: Monteverdi Vesper 1610
– This was the first concert i contemplated skipping due to irrelevant reasons.. And of course stern Stray friendly suggested I shouldn’t.. Indeed it turned out a GREAT evening, loads and loads of arrangements of all sorts of voices with various instruments in the orchestra. At first I was clueless, thinking it was a form of mass.. until a friend mentioned it’s a series of “evening songs”, which entirely made sense the constant musical-chair rearrangements of singers (the fact that the pieces are not connected but rather somewhat independent, and one just need to rearrange to get the proper number + type of singers and instruments in the same corner). Superb singing, in many occasions almost a-cappella.
Saturday 13/Jun/2015 at 2.30pm: Royal Academy of Music and Juilliard415 playing Bach:
– I was late for this one, because the weather was gorgeous outside and there was a pride parade going on!! After dragging Stray along to see some floats and contemplating skipping the concert, Stray sternly recommended that I not skip :-). And it would have been a HUGE mistake! Given my listening background, it was the BEST concert. Finally i get it: if you want to listen to Bach, this is the type of orchestra and singers you need!! It makes a huge difference! You realized immediately why Bach music is so powerful! I *love* duets between voices and oboes. Also memorable was 1 duet with the horns. Post concert I was on my walk out when overheard our soprano is from Belgium and that it’s a very international orchestra + chorus.
Saturday 13/Jun/2015 at 11pm: BEMF Chamber Ensemble and Dark Horse Consort:
– superb _whatever_ you call the fancy woodwind instruments next to the lovely baroque horns (I LOVE those horns too, sounds so low key), and also fantastic drums! They brought out the dancers in generic period costumes so I spent my time enjoying the violinists instead..
Sunday 14/Jun at 12:30pm: Michael Form and Friends playing Vivaldi(ana)
– How about a bassoon solo!! and bassoon – recorder duet! the entire concert was great but i must say the best piece is Vivaldi RV 86 which gave full lines of music to the bassoon — Mélanie Flahaut, our bassoonist played several trills!! She then joyfully duetted with the recorder, simply superb. They received very loud and well deserved applause and hollers from the audience.


This was to be my last concert.. until I decided to walk next door to purchase a ticket for Poppea.. But let’s summarize here: it was a superb week with top quality music! Am happy to finally get a hang of this to understand which concerts / groups I should see. The only regret is the missing of Jordi Savall.. the things we learn :-).