Review: Poppea ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Poppea

George Orwell once remarked that if a writer says he can't write, he can't write. It's not laziness or malingering or disorganisation: it's mysterious, crippling incapacity. When allied to the desire to write, he listed it as one of the major frustrations of a writer's life; if a writer isn't writing, he enters an existential no man's land in which it's difficult to see his reason for being on the planet. (This is assuming that a writer's self is entirely defined by writing which is, fortunately, not entirely true).

So it is that Ms TN has been thinking about Barrie Kosky's Poppea for more than a week, yet has been curiously unable to write a word. Last Saturday I stole a precious 24 hours, flew up to Sydney, relaxed enough to realise how near to burnout I actually am, and then trotted off to the Sydney Opera House to see the opera. From the overture, during which the lights slowly faded in the auditorium and the curtain rose, revealing Amor with her back to us, one garishly braceleted hand gracefully extended in silhouette, my breath seemed to stop. I left the theatre exhilarated, moved and shaken.

I thought Poppea was an outstanding and fearless work of theatre, which is perhaps what has inhibited my writing about it. It seemed to me to be a work about love that was for grown ups, a work that enacted the darkness and beauty and amorality of eroticism with a rare honesty. It showed at once the preposterousness of lust and the dignity of love, the ruthlessness and tenderness of desire, its ludicrous obsessiveness, its corruption and its purity, the murderous seduction of power. Its ironies are savage, and yet it pierced my soul, that wounded and scratched prison of my body, with profound sorrow.

Kosky has taken Monteverdi's last opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea, and given it a very 21st century treatment. The opera is cut to the bone: all the secondary characters and all the gods save Amor, the goddess of love, are gone. He has also translated the original libretto, by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, into German, and he's interwoven Monteverdi's music with songs by Cole Porter, which illuminates both of them. I'll certainly never hear Porter's songs in the same way again; this production brings out their themes of obsession and passion, their world-weary cynicism, the black polish of their urban wit, and their contrast with the baroque intensities of Monteverdi's music is as exciting as their thematic collisions. It's a bold, dramaturgically elegant attack on the original work that brings its blood to the surface of the skin.

The opera tells the sordid story of Poppea's accession to power as Empress of Rome. Originally Ottone's (Martin Niedermair) lover, she attracts the attentions of Nero (Kyrre Kvam). With the blessing of Amor (Barbara Spitz, played as a world-weary madam), she schemes to marry him: Nero has to divorce his wife Ottavio (Barbara Frey), and in order to do that, he has to get rid of Seneca (Florian Carove), Nero's former tutor and an influential moral voice in the Senate. Meanwhile, Ottavia hatches a plot to murder Poppea, blackmailing Ottone into doing the dirty deed despite his continuing love for Poppea. Ottavia is backed by Ottone's lover Drusilla (Ruth Brauer-Kvam), who was thrown over for Poppea and still seethes with jealousy. Seneca commits suicide on Nero's orders, Ottone and Drusilla are exposed, punished and banished, Ottavia is exiled, and Poppea and Nero emerge triumphant, celebrating their marriage with an achingly beautiful duet.

There are ironies here that are mostly lost on a modern audience. Busenello's libretto was based on Tacitus's account of the Emperor Nero's reign of Rome, which is by any measure a racy read. Monteverdi's audience would have been aware that Poppea came to a bad end: most Roman historians agree that Nero murdered her by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant with her second child. Some even say he jumped on her. (Modern historians note that Seutonius, Tacitus and others were very biased against Nero, no doubt for good reason, and that she may have simply died from complications in childbirth or a miscarriage). Moreover, Ottone, Poppea's rejected lover, became Emperor in the end anyway.

Shorn of this context, Monteverdi's triumphant ending is disconcerting, even obscene, a blackly realist view of the effectiveness of ruthless power. Kosky exploits this ambiguity to the full, reserving easy judgment for a more sternly Platonic morality: that virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment, which I've often thought is one of the bleakest observations ever made.

The couple's first crime is the death of Seneca, which in the opera comes about through Poppea's urging. (It is certainly true that Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide, but in fact it was after the Pisonian Conspiracy, a plot to kill Nero, in which the Emperor believed Seneca was involved, although it's unlikely that he was - but hey, Monteverdi was no more interested in historical accuracy than Kosky is).

Seneca cuts his wrists in a hot bath, the favoured Roman method of self-slaughter, and so here he rises up, naked in a bath tub, from the floor of the stage. He is mute, as Nero has already cut out his tongue, and his arias are sung by another actor or, in an extraordinary scene, acted out in sign language. The scenes that show his death are the most powerful in the opera. Nero climbs into the bath with him and smears himself, with gestures like those of a lover, with Seneca's blood, before the corpse slumps heavily out of the bath in an image which is one of the most shockingly abject representations of death I've seen on stage.

Nero's spurned wife Ottavio, who first appears as a figure of grotesque comedy, writhing with jealousy and spite, comports herself in her final song as a figure of intensely moving dignity, proudly accepting her exile and proclaiming her innocence. She shows up the lack of dignity of Poppea and Nero, who prowl the stage like the grotesque, bestial creatures their power has made them into.

Likewise, the love story between Drusilla and Ottone emerges as a contrast to the self-satisfied self interest of Nero and Poppea. For this couple, their murderous adventures and their punishment lead to a sacrificial declaration of love, with Drusilla pledging to go into exile with Ottone at the height of their humiliation - both are raped by Nero, although he stops short of ordering them off to the torture chamber for a lingering and painful death. And this prompts an impassioned solo from Ottone in which he declares his happiness: a happiness, it is quite clear, that Poppea and Nero have foresworn, and which Poppea, stalking the stage like a crazed monster behind them, murderously envies.

None of this, however, takes away from the ravishing beauty of Poppea and Nero's final declaration of love. They can be monstrous and amoral and still truly love each other; after all, their victims gain their dignity through losing the power game and, aside from Seneca, are no less morally questionable than the Imperial couple. Amor, the goddess of love, is not concerned with the morality of passion: her drive is towards the orgasmic moment of excess, the primitive, unbridled nightmare of passion.

The production is realised with a simplicity of staging that mercilessly exposes the action. The set is an office-like box, white walls with doors, that throws the emphasis onto the bodies of the performers. The revealing costumes make the actors seem more naked than they would be if they were actually unclothed: here everything is revealed by what is hidden, which is the secret behind the erotics of almost everything, and especially art. Poppea works off contrast, turning in a trice from cabaret grotesquerie to sublime operatic beauty, from comedy to tragedy. And the cast, without exception, rises fearlessly to Kosky's demands; every performance here fully inhabits the contrasting extremities of the roles.

One effect is that it abolishes duration; you wake up at the end as if from a dream, aware only then of what has been stirred out of the dark reaches of the psyche. For me, it was mainly sorrow, which is perhaps what beauty inevitably does; it breaks open my awareness of mortality by briefly lifting me, with its gorgeous, fleeting illusion, out of time. If opera is indeed a song of love and death, then Poppea is, for all its impurities, pure opera.

Picture: Melita Jurisic and Kyrre Kvam in the coronation scene from Poppea.

Poppea, after Monteverdi, by Barrie Kosky, directed by Barrie Kosky. With Barbara Spitz, Martin Niedermair, Melita Jurisic, Kyrre Kvam, Beatrice Frey, Florian Carove and Ruth Nauer-Kvam. Musicians: Aisha Buka, Linde Gansch, Jorge Ulrich Krah and Barrie Kosky. Vienna Schauspielhaus, Sydney Opera House.


Anonymous said...

What was the actual singing like? How was the score realised? Kosky is basing his production on one of the most important musical statements in the development of the form that we know as opera.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - perhaps the singing wouldn't have pleased you: it was theatrical rather than operatic. The singing was excellent, if not always straight opera: jazz notes, even rock, distortions, sometimes shrieks. Though if you were looking for opera voices, Kyrre Kvam's voice gave the baroque all its sublimity (tenor rather than soprano). Musically it was inventive, and the shifts between Porter and Monteverdi wittily handled, with three cellists and Kosky on piano and (sometimes a little enthusiastically) percussion. If you object to the reworking of classics, it might well not be your thing: but I thought it a beautiful take on the original opera.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I have no objection to re-working classics (although Kosky has bulldozed rather than re-worked many in his time). As you probably know Monteverdi's score does not exist, only a vocal outline with figured bass exists) so there is no real 'urtext' either authentic or freely interpreted (as you might call Kosky's). Was there an intention to sound baroque in any way? I take it too that there were no 'buffers' between the sound (what ever it was) of Monteverdi's bit and the Cole Porter interpolations?

Alison Croggon said...

The baroque was there, in the duets, for example. It was shot through with other styles, that for me had the effect of throwing that gorgeous baroque sound into sharp relief. As you intuit, he switched from Monteverdi to Porter on a dime, often mid-song. Also as you intuit, I'm no great expert on the history of music, and no great shakes at describing it (theatre gal, me). Though I did listen to Momteverdi's original before writing this review, fwiw.

Anonymous said...

'Monteverdi's original'! do you commune with the spirit realm? No wonder your novels have such versimilitude!

Alison Croggon said...

Ms Rhinoceros here. I guess Anon 3 (was it?) means that listening to a contemporary recording is not the same as listening to it in Venice in 1643. Duh.

James Waites said...

Hi Alison,

of your many great pieces, I think this is one of your best. I too have baulked at a response for the same reason: the work is so dazzling and 'complete' it seems impertinent to attempt unstitching it, even for the purposes of discussion. But, gee wiz, once the moment comes to you - how you fly. This is an incredibly lucid and inspiring response to an encounter with a work for the stage.

And what a work for the stage it is!

Gosh I wish people would say who they are if they are going to write comments - or at least come up with a nom-de-blog we can identify. Especially if they are going to be snide - such 'courage' (how can I get a French accent into that?)

Hey, and on the work load thing: you deserve a grant so you can afford a PA. Too much for one little gal! But we readers are thus blessed. You a miracle - and be sure plenty of people in the trade are incredibly appreciative of your enormous (quality and quantity) contribution.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks James for your sweet comments. Much appreciated.

Yes, sometimes I get tired of anonymous snark. But it's only ever a small proportion of comments here, and I can't bring myself to change the settings. Yet.

James Waites said...

Let them be cowardly in public - all the more impressive!!

Unknown said...

hey alison,

I just got back from my second viewing. I'm so sad it doesn't go to melbourne - if only coz then i could fly down and see it again. So beautiful, so eloquent and sop passionate from BK. He's like Kassandra isn't he? So empathetic and so misunderstood by so many.

But glad you saw it. It'll sustain me for a few more moths...
tom healey

Alison Croggon said...

Lucky you, Tom. I'd love to see it again. And yes, it's a bummer it's not coming to Melbourne.

Jessie Keath said...

Hi All,

I thought the production was outstanding ; maracas and all. I was taken aback by how the work managed to be so grotesque and so exquisite at once (both times I saw it).
I just wanted to say thanks Alison for the review - it's so nice to have someone sensible make sense of great work.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jessie!

Anonymous said...

It was definitely a great show that gave me plenty to write about, and one that I’ll remember for a while I suspect – although I didn’t have quite the out-of-body experience that you seemed to have had, Alison!

This may be slightly off topic, but what do you think it is about this injection of Kosky that gave you writer’s block? (An easy question to ask, perhaps a very difficult one to answer!) I’ve been doing some musing on creativity of late, you see...

Alison Croggon said...

Hi EP - I actually don't believe in writer's block. In fact, to be honest, I had several tasks that week, and the reason for the delay was really the other things I had to write. (Yes, I was taking a bit of poetic license).

However, it is true that I find it very difficult to write about stuff I really, really admire, partly because I feel strongly that I want to do it justice. Ie, I'm very conscious that I don't want to merely gush. And probably mostly because it reaches places that are basically inarticulate.

Iain Scott said...

This production came to the Edinburgh International Festival and I well remember the reactions of the audience, indeed I well remember my own reactions. We had absolutely no idea what to expect then this ravishing music started and the drama unfolded. We-all of us-were spellbound. Fast forward to the interval where everyone was discussing this amazing event.Back for the second half which had us entranced,entertained,shocked. Outside the theatre the buzz continued. It was not a particularly full house which actually made it even more special. We were hooked on the great cast and direction. Kosky is an outstanding creative force and his cast magnificent.
The reason for this post is we are about to see Saul at Glyndbourne directed by Kosky and i was reminded of Poppea

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for your comment, Iain, and I wish I could see Saul for myself!