L’Incoronazione di Poppea
William Christie, cond; Danielle de Niese (
); Philippe Jaroussky (
); Max Emanuel Cencic (
); Robert Burt (
); Anna Bonitatibus (
); Antonio Abete (
); Hanna Bayodi-Hirt (
); Claire Debono (
); Katherine Watson (
); Les Arts Florissants
VIRGIN 07095 191 (2 DVDs: 180:00) Live: Teatro Real, Madrid 5/2010
This is one of those contrarian productions that comes along every once in a while, deliberately inverting various aspects of the opera’s libretto, music, setting, etc. I get a distinct impression that its stage director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, views undercutting the work subtly or obviously as his primary goal. Consider the set he chooses for the First Act, the traditional three doors of Roman comedy, revived in Renaissance Italy: Here, the dark doors against a black backdrop mean nothing. They can’t be, or aren’t, opened. People enter and exit from the sides, so the doors serve no purpose. Or consider the costumes. With Nero’s hair in a razor cut, a white pancake foundation on his face, and sporting a seven-foot robe of what appears to be black plastic feathers, he looks like Pee-Wee Herman doing Big Bird in a mourning outfit. Dressing him for the act III finale in a duplicate of the formless but clingy, sparkling gold stole that really looks sexy on De Niese also doesn’t enhance his virile credibility. His soldiers wear black lamé shirts and shorts or pants, with black socks and shoes, while carrying around Roman short swords. Think this is making a point about outfits Nero might have designed? Guess again: poor Ottone has his hair greased up and back like something out of the ’50s, while wearing a strange outfit of white and blue shirt and pants in contrasting patterns. And Fortuna’s tiger-skin outfit with sun-glasses is better left unimagined, much less seen. This could be excused as owing to the set designer and costumier each, rather than Pizzi, if it weren’t for the fact that Pizzi is stage director, set designer, and costumier.
As for the direction, it is of a piece with the rest. Pizzi has this Poppea show great disgust for Nero throughout act I every time she turns away, or he turns away—which when you think about it, is just unbelievable: No person of intelligence would repeatedly show their contempt with an unhinged, megalomaniacal ruler in the same room, in the belief they wouldn’t catch you at it. There’s also the little matter of it not being supported by the libretto or music. Poppea does love Nero—as the symbol of ultimate Roman power, as the patron of her current position, and as the one who will raise her up to share in his estate. There is an earnest naïveté alongside her rapaciousness in all this that makes her character fascinating; she’s no Becky Sharp. Similarly, the music and libretto both point to the antihero and antiheroine entwined at the end both musically and physically in dreamlike bliss, but Pizzi has them spend much of the time running across the stage away from one another. When all is said and done, so much attention is paid to not presenting Monteverdi’s opera, that we’re left with no idea about what Pizzi means it to be.
And it’s too bad, because the performers are almost uniformly excellent. Danielle de Niese is here more musically subtle and varied than in her portrayal of Poppea under Robert Carsen, two years earlier (Decca 074 3339). Philippe Jaroussky is the worst looking Nero I’ve ever laid eyes on thanks to Pizzi, but he acts the part convincingly outside his scenes with Poppea, and sings the role with his accustomed passion and ease. I still find Max Emanuel Cencic nearly incapable of vocal expression, but his alto tone, forward enunciation, and great vocal agility are welcome as Ottone. Anna Bonitatibus is a first-rate Ottavia, and Robert Burt, the best Arnalta I’ve heard in the slightly-over-the-hill aged bass type that’s been favored of late. The three warring deities are all fine, with the palm going to Katherine Watson. Only Antonio Abete disappoints, with a surprisingly wide wobble in an otherwise strong and supple voice. William Christie tends to smooth out corners in the score, but Les Arts Florissants performs with warmth and plenty of color.
The acting is good in general, too, when Pizzi isn’t getting his cast to do something that makes little sense. Sadly, though, I can’t recommend this. Many productions attempt various riffs on Busenello’s fascinatingly complex characters, theme, and plots, but surrendering the field by running in all directions save the obvious one makes little sense. Tie that to sets that are dark and dreary, and costuming that is decidedly strange, and you have an opera that never comes alive.