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 :-).


About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

16 Responses to bemf round 9: gender-strict pg-7 Poppea

  1. dehggial says:

    priceless! of all the operas to stage in a Disney manner, he he.

    I see Poppea as a play with additional singing. So maybe if you think about it that way it’ll be easier to get into it. Acting is crucial. Since it’s essentially debauchery from A to Z I don’t think it works very well if it’s staged in an earnest way. It’s so not a gooey love story, I find it hilarious that anyone could read it that way even if they didn’t know history. It’s so obviously about getting away with excess and abuse of power. Very representative of our times, if you think about it. So why anyone would want it with chitons and those airy fairy hand gestures is beyond me but then it takes all kinds. However, a sense of cynicism has to be retained. But, you know, this staging probably makes perfect sense for people obsessed with celebrity culture, where people get famous for no merit of their own.

    • stray says:

      Basically because Gilbert Blin is a theater historian as well as a stage director, and it’s a festival with HIP at the center of its mission statement, theatrically as well as musically.

      • dehggial says:

        He’s taking HIP-ness way too seriously.

        • stray says:

          I would say were this going on anywhere else, maybe yes, but not here.

          I will say this isn’t his best production, but on the other hand it’s a work BEMF had never really intended to do — and, it’s about the most mainstream thing they’ve ever done, afaik — so he kind of had it handed to him.

          • stray says:

            And interestingly, Dr T, the Nutrice in 2009 was Zachary Wilder, Ottone was Holger Falk, a baritone, and the Nerone was tenor Marcus Ullmann. So that’s sort of an indicator of what a desperate situation they were in back then, having to switch operas in mid-stream. At least they were in the right ballpark this time lol

          • thả diều says:

            oh wow, i’d have totally flipped with that cast :-). don’t they even have *1* mezzo in their development who could have taken one of the roles??? I can’t figure out if this time around is an “improvement” because the music was not transposed.. gosh the more i think the more i get upset 🙂 .
            (thanks for listening to my babbling and whining! it was great hanging out with you two the whole week, made it much more exciting!)

          • stray says:

            I think the point was they had already hired everybody for Antiochus & Stratonica, so they had to figure out what they could cast with exactly those singers (and that was going to be a fast learn and relatively cheap to stage), and a transposed Poppea is what they came up with. I don’t remember it being terrible, but it may say something that the only thing about it I do remember is Christian Immler’s Seneca.

            It might also say something about the way they staged it that the rubric that year was The Power of Love, and that the chamber operas were Venus & Adonis and Acteon.

            Thanks for coming out to play, it was fun 🙂

          • dehggial says:

            Interesting. How come they never intended to do it?

          • stray says:

            Poppea was a last minute replacement in 2009 for their planned production of Graupner’s Antiochus & Stratonica, which evaporated with a big chunk of their funding in the crash that year. They trotted it out again for the Monteverdi thing this year, which is unusual in that they don’t generally do revivals of their main stage opera productions. But they were running it against Ulisse, which was new, and I’m guessing got more attention.

          • thả diều says:

            you think Ulisse got more attention? i thought Poppea was definitely their main attraction and focus of their ads with poster-boy CT + A.Forsythe (but yet surprisingly less coherent than Ulisse). I guess Ulisse is actually easier to stage because the story is much simpler and you have the full orchestra to support with great music.. in addition to characters need not be too psychological (of course i only care about Penelope, everyone else can be 0- or 1-d for all i care :D)

          • stray says:

            From the production team, not necessarily from the marketing dept.

  2. thả diều says:

    oh man, and i was complaining about the hands, this looks like it comes right out of that movie “dark city”! in fact i can hear in my head already: “shut it down!”

    • stray says:

      lol When I was talking after the perf about gestural language, I was gonna say it was really no different from Robert Wilson

      • thả diều says:

        here’s a review; it actually sounds like the Liceu Ariodante’s puppet show: by the initial look you’re taken aback but if well acted it should work great because the minimal set allows you to focus on the singing + subtle movements 🙂

        (and I just realized now, reading through review above and specifically this one that Alessandrini used a much more elaborate version of the score:
        “The conductor — who has lived with this opera for many years and prepared his own performing edition based largely on the longer Neapolitan version of the score, with additions by various other composers — caught the specific expressive mood of each scene while maintaining a secure grasp of the work’s overall architecture.”
        And it seems he (Alessandrini) also has quite a bit of power in choosing the cast, with insistence on a tenor Nerone in Milan, Paris, and Liceu.. Aside from that, he quite consistently casted a mezzo/contralto for Ottone and 2 countertenors for the 2 nurses (1 mezzo in Milan for nurse Arnalta, may be they have the opposite “problem” in Italy of excess of mezzo instead of CT 😀 , hence also a mezzo for the role Drusilla!).

  3. thả diều says:

    oh wow, can you believe this casting!! VK’s poppea to JK’s Nerone!!! and Franco Fagioli as Ottone!

    • thả diều says:

      Replying to my own comment here.. i was curious about this cast so dug up a bit.. the show made its usual concert trip to London and this guy seemed to have a *very* miserable time! He was apparently *always* bothered by Harnoncourt, bothered by La Scintilla, majorly bothered by VK’s “East-European timbre”.. and lack of “sensuous” duet because of JK’s tenor transposed music .. suffice to say his evening was ruined.. perhaps he was looking for something else altogether?

      So, how about a contrast? this reviewer analyzed in detail the balancing of sound by Harnoncourt vs Rene Jacobs (really nice to read this bit, explains a lot of what we (I) hear sometimes without understanding why…) and (s)he seemed to have a great time with exact concert version in London! And this one had a great evening too, “Poppea is motivated entirely by desire, whereas the ambition to be Empress which blends so smoothly with the lust is a thought-provoking element in the plot as I see it. Kasarova, with her sultry tones and reckless manner, is well suited to either interpretation“, though (s)he did mention the transposed music interfering.. which i can understand why, imagine putting a tenor for Bellini’s romeo.. no sanks, as i’d say :D.

      Anyhow, fun (morning) read to start the (my) day of wrestling with data… oh, before mentioning there is an *in-haus* recording!!

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