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 Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason?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.|
|Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia|
|I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla. You're too damn prim.|
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!).