WILLIAM CHRISTIE — PHILIP¨PE JAROUSSKY — DANIELLE DE NIESE — L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA — 1642–2010
This opera is a real myth. It depicts Rome under Emperor Nero, married to Ottavia who means in no way love but only politics and business. Nero is very young still and has the psyche of a lascivious lubricious teenager. What’s more, he never takes “NO!” for an answer and considers what he wants is the law of the realm, and certainly not the reverse.
We know that Nero who was on the verge of becoming the emperor in Handel’s Agrippina. And we all know what Jean-Claude Malgoire made of it with Jaroussky as the teenage future emperor. In other words, this opera is the sequel to Agrippina. And Nero is played and sung by the same Jaroussky. Expectations are high and intense.
The director decided to, have three countertenors. One for Nero, Philippe Jaroussky, one for Ottone (Nero’s unlucky rival in love), Max Emmanuel Cencic, and one for the Nutrice, José Lemos. The director, William Christie, adds another man standing for a woman, Robert Burt for Arnalta. The two countertenors for Ottone and Nero are not surprising since they were castrati in Monteverdi’s time: castrati were the heroic characters in Renaissance and Baroque times. What is more surprising is the use of two men for two secondary characters, one a tenor, Robert Burt, and one a countertenor, José Lemos. Arnalta who is just the aged nurse and confidante of Poppea is played and sung by a male tenor, and the Nutrice is just the nurse of Ottavia hence a confidante. Note this gender game goes on with the Empress’s pageboy is played and sung by a female soprano in boyish shorts. This last case is still quite common though teenage boy singers do exist today and could hold the part.
I will add to this one remark later.
So it is, first of all, a tale of infidelity. Ottone was originally in love with Drusilla, but he dropped her for Poppea. Unluckily for him, Nero, married to Ottavia, falls in love with Poppea who completely forgets Ottone to whom she had promised the moon and she falls for the brilliant future of becoming the Empress. Ottone goes back to Drusilla, afraid of Nero finding out about his love for Poppea and thus afraid of losing his life in the business. Ottavia summons Ottone and orders him to kill Poppea. He is still in love with her. Ottavia suggests he disguises himself as a woman to hide his identity. He borrows a dress from Drusilla who is thrilled by the project.
Unluckily it fails and Nero is confronted with punishing the culprit. The first culprit considered is Drusilla: “Torture her till she confesses!” She confesses fast without torture. Then she will die but slowly and painfully. Ottone then accuses himself, which embarrasses Nero, since now he has two guilty people. That’s when it is revealed that Ottavia was the instigator of the crime. Then Nero is even more puzzled. That’s when some consensus comes up in Nero’s mind and he decides to banish from Rome the three culprits, Ottone with Drusilla and Ottavia in another direction. In spite of the protest from Ottone that he is not punished since he is banished with the woman he loves and who loves him, probably in order to save Drusilla from banishment, Nero keeps to his decision: repudiation of Ottavia and three banishments.
The only dark shadow in the opera on Nero’s personality is his decision to have Seneca condemned to death because Seneca disagrees with the repudiation of Ottavia for simple political reasons. Seneca accepts his death with pleasure because he thinks his work is finished in Rome.
All that is quite in agreement with the standard story or argument of this libretto. The director though turns the scene between Nero and Lucano (a poet played and sung by the tenor Mathias Vidal) in which Nero is absolutely transported to maximum happiness by his marrying Poppea and he so tells his intimate, into a sexy and erotic scene between the two men ending in a kiss. That was of course not in the original libretto. That was even impossible in Monteverdi’s time. Actually, it is not so surprising since Nero is known as a blood-thirsty tyrant loving cruelty but also for his “perversion” as some call it. True enough Rome in those days was not very particular about it but Monteverdi could not bring that on an opera stage in his century.
Here is the testimony of two Romans of old times quoted by http://www.reformation.org/perverted-marriage-of-nero.html:
“Emperor Nero was initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras in 65 AD. The 2nd grade is called Nymphus (bride). Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus–a fanatical devotee of Jupiter and Minerva–was the most depraved monster that ever disgraced the annals of history. The name Nero is proverbial for murder, rape, sodomy, incest, cruelty, and every kind of crime imaginable. In the first recorded false flag operation in history, he burned Rome and then blamed it on the Christians. The diabolical monster Nero ordered the execution of the Apostle Paul. After Caligula and Claudius, he was the 3rd pagan Pontiff to persecute the believers in the Messiah.
In 65 AD, the mad Pontiff Nero crowned all his other debauches by a same-sex marriage. Nero married a male look-alike of his murdered wife Poppea Sabina. Here is a report by the Roman historian Suetonius:
« Besides the abuse of free-born lads and the debauch of married women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He was upon the point of marrying Acte, his freedwoman, having suborned some men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. He gelded the boy Sporus and endeavored to transform him into a woman. He even went so far as to marry him, with all the usual formalities of a marriage settlement, the rose-colored nuptial veil, and a numerous company at the wedding. When the ceremony was over, he had him conducted like a bride to his own house, and treated him as his wife. It was jocularly observed by some person, “that it would have been well for mankind, had such a wife fallen to the lot of his father Domitius.” This Sporus he carried about with him in a litter around the solemn assemblies and fairs of Greece, and afterward at Rome through the Sigillaria, dressed in the rich attire of an empress; kissing him from time to time as they rode together. » (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Nero, XXVIII).
Here is another report from Roman historian Cassius Dio:
« Now Nero called Sporus “Sabina” not merely because, owing to his resemblance to her he had been made a eunuch, but because the boy, like the mistress, had been solemnly married to him in Greece, Tigellinus giving the bride away, as the law ordained. All the Greeks held a celebration in honor of their marriage, uttering all the customary good wishes, even to the extent of praying that legitimate children might be born to them. After that Nero had two bedfellows at once, Pythagoras to play the role of husband to him, and Sporus that of a wife. The latter, in addition to other forms of address, was termed “lady,” “queen,” and “mistress.” Yet why should one wonder at this, seeing that Nero would fasten naked boys and girls to stakes, and then putting on the hide of a wild beast would attack them and satisfy his brutal lust under the appearance of devouring parts of their bodies? Such were the indecencies of Nero. » (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII, 13).
There is more than one Chamber of Horrors in the Museum of History, but none like that of Emperor Nero. Nero’s real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His ambitious and ruthless mother married Emperor Claudius, and persuaded him to adopt her son as his legal heir.”
Wikipedia does not say anything different but widens the references in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Rome:
“The emperor Nero had a puer delicatus named Sporus, whom he castrated and married.[Note 88: Caroline Vout, Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome(Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 136 (for Sporus in Alexander Pope’s poem “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”, see Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?).] . . . Various ancient sources state that the emperor Nero celebrated two public weddings with men, once taking the role of the bride (with a freedman Pythagoras), and once the groom (with Sporus); there may have been a third in which he was the bride.[Note 120: Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and Aurelius Victor are the sources cited by Williams, Roman Homosexuality, p. 279.]”
It is obvious today that the extreme denunciation from the protestant site “reformation.org” is not in phase with our world. The scene at stake here in this opera may be in phase but it does not really bring anything to the opera, except that Nero only had one love at one time, though his love-time was always short. He was fickle and whimsical, in love right now and having his lover, man or woman, executed the next instant, like Poppea.
But now what about the music, the singing, and the stage directing?
The dominant color is black and all other shades of grey, with a little bit of white. The color red is ambiguous since it is the color of Amore’s dress (a woman on the stage though she is called a son and a boy by Venus, his very mother: true enough in the Prologue the said woman was holding what could be seen as a boy), hence the color of love that reigns in the world, maybe with the help of Fortuna, bot going against Virtua. But red is also the dress worn by Drusilla when she is told by Ottone that he will need a dress of hers which she agrees to lend. And then this red dress will become the dress of the killer under disguise, hence in no way the symbol of love but that of jealousy, hatred, conspiracy, etc. Note the surprising purple color of Arnalta in the opera except at the end when she/he comes up for the conclusion in purple but this time shiny purple silk.
The only other color is gold, various shades of it, worn only by Nero, Poppea and the Senators and Tribunes. Gold thus is the color of political power and actually Poppea at the very beginning of the opera, after having spent the night with Nero was dressed in some light sand-color dress which would be a lackluster version of gold, showing her ambition. In this very after-love scene, Nero is dressed in some pathetic robe made of flimsy synthetic featherlike ribbons of the darkest possible shiny black. Note Nero is systematically made up with a very pale face which makes Poppea look darker than she is.
The whole opera — its heavy grandiloquent setting on a “turntable” that provides three of these settings; its very stiff acting and stage action, with two or three exceptions; the very drab black and grey general colors; the costumes that are either in no phase with Roman times or Italian Renaissance times or baroque times, or that are totally timeless robes and vast houppelandes — the whole opera plays on some more or less grandiose and forbidding style that misses the subtleties of Italian Monteverdian baroque.
The exceptions that save the opera are the following. First of all, Philippe Jaroussky who is able to shift from graphical visionary love (in fact purely lubricious carnal desire) to the most whimsical political style sending anyone to death, and even cruel death, on a caprice, a feeling of dissatisfaction or discontent with other people around him. This flexibility that is the trademark of Jaroussky saves his role, his part and gives some dynamism to some scenes of the opera. And he surely knows how to walk in anger and frustration. Then Danielle de Niese has the same flexibility and she can shift from what looks like love to what is only lust, anger, fear, ambition and some other feelings of the social climbing type. The two together are perfectly well adapted because of their closely connected voices and of their ability to make erotic what is only after-love boredom or tiredness. The next surprise is obviously Robert Burt that gives to the woman he is supposed to be some ambiguous dimension of maybe some eroticism between her and Poppea. Discreet disguise. José Lemos is outstanding as Nutrice with her advice to the Empress that is bound to lead to some catastrophe. Finally, Mathias Vidal transforms the role of an intimate into a lover of the Emperor, like it or not, since the Emperor does not make the difference between a man and a woman as long as he busts a load.
But altogether it lacks something joyous, exciting, light and insouciant in most scenes that could have treated dramatic elements with the lightness of the total lack of care beyond the ambitious and self-centered if not even egotistically selfish feelings and attitudes in the two main characters, and even also Ottone and Ottavia.
The singing and the music, of course, are absolutely superb but it is not enough to have the best champagne in a dirty wooden mug. The labelled bottle and the crystal glass are essential. And do not forget the bubbles.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU