Photos – Brett Boardman
At its inception in 2002, Pinchgut Opera’s declared intention was to produce operas from the 17th and 18th centuries with as great a fidelity to the musical performance conditions of their time as possible, certainly privileging the musical side over the staging. Over the years since then, I have observed (and I have attended nearly all their productions) a gradual increase in the care taken over the staging, using the stage of the City Recital Hall, never designed with operas in mind, with increasing ingenuity. I would say that this production of Monteverdi’s greatest opera marks a point at which the staging has become so important that occasionally the music was subjugated to it.
I do not say this as a criticism, although there were moments, such as the timing of events in two of Ottone’s scenes, and more disturbingly when Ottavia (Natalie Christie Peluso) utters the beginning of her lament to Rome - “A-, a-, a-, addio Roma” while climbing out of a suitcase, so that the gasped “A-“s, intended surely by Monteverdi to depict her inability to actually say goodbye to the city of which she was empress, became sort of grunts of exhaustion as she got out of the suitcase; there were moments such as these when I would have preferred the balance to go in favour of the music. But it is no accident that this dominance of staging took place in a work by Monteverdi, who said, explicitly, and in connection with this very idea, “Primo le parole, poi la musica” – the words first, then the music.
You will have divined by now that the production brought the opera into the present day. Its opening scene, where Ottone returns to his beloved Poppea only to find Nero’s thugs guarding her door, reflected my experience when, going to visit a lover, I saw her other lover’s car parked outside her house… And indeed it is altogether a remarkably modern work, which must have been seen a relevant to Monteverdi’s 17th century Venice even though it is set in Imperial Rome. The composer has been often compared to his older contemporary, Shakespeare, in the breadth of his characterisation, yet to my mind Busenello’s libretto, taken by itself, is more like Christopher Marlowe in its unflinching depiction of a totally immoral world. And this is what we are living in now, our own immorality being a direct and inevitable product of free market practices, so that for example we can allow the irreversible destruction of our land, sea, and air by Adani because it might make money.
One person dares to criticise the despot Nero – the philosopher Seneca. He is Nero’s beloved teacher; but when it is hinted that he might be treacherous (he is not) Nero orders him killed. In our own time, when one of the nation’s intellectual jewels, CSIRO dares to suggest that global warming is a clear and present danger, and that humans are partly responsible for it – no, they are not killed, but their funding is cut in half and discredit is poured onto them. Compared to the fantastic and deliberate cruelty exulted in by our own government, condemning thousands of innocent people to years and years of hell on Manus Island, where their existence is 2% hope and 98% despair, the cruelty of Nero, who wishes to punish the would-be murderer Drusilla by slow torture and death (but then changes his mind), seems like child’s play.
We couldn’t say, comfortably, at this performance “look at how terribly corrupt Imperial Rome was, oh things are so different now”. However, Mark Gaal chose not to portray the emperor Nero as Donald Trump (although the actions of someone who is prepared to change the law so that his son can go and kill elephants have a strongly Neronian ring to them) but instead to place the action in a social underworld, perhaps like King’s Cross. That the high-born courtesan who is Poppea is depicted as a “common prostitute” (Bernard Shaw) gives a special edge to her eventual transformation into a socialite – is there really any difference? (By the way, why do we sympathise profoundly with the courtesan Violetta in La Traviata, but not with Poppea? Because Violetta dies, and Poppea is successful?)
So – first the words, ok – and how was the music?
Monteverdi, like his distant successor Verdi, was a great humanist. With fragments of some of the most varied musical styles of the time, he colours all of the characters, with none of whom the audience can completely sympathise, with a certain warmth and a deep understanding. Only Nero himself has no redeeming features. We can sympathise with Ottone’s infatuation with Poppea, and with Drusilla’s for Ottone, even though both are prepared to murder to gain their ends, because of the tender attention Monteverdi gives to their ariettas, and which were delivered with passion (Owen Willetts) and impulsiveness (Natalie Christie Peluso – yes, she played three roles in this production). And in the beautiful scene where Poppea goes to sleep and her nurse, sung here by tenor Kanen Breen as the complete show-stealing Sydney trannie, sings the lullaby “Adagiati, Poppea” we feel that Poppea is vulnerable. Despite Seneca’s pomposity, resonantly delivered by David Greco (gosh that guy is busy, I heard him the previous night singing Bach with the SSO); when his pupils sing “non mori, Seneca” (do not die, Seneca) to a an impassioned utterance whose chromaticism boggles the mind, we are on his side.
The singing of the cast, as always with Pinchgut Opera, was excellent, and I would single out the remarkably pure and penetrating counter-tenor of Jake Arditti as Nero, the golden-voiced Roberta Diamond, who sang Amore, and Natalie Christie Peluso’s limpidly flexible Drusilla, as being perhaps the most faithful to the stylistic norms of the seventeenth century. Arditti was extraordinary. When Nero lost his temper, his voice made you really terrified of him – and then his mood changed, and his sound changed with it to something smooth and mellifluous. Peluso, captivating as Drusilla, wasn’t quite as impressive as Ottavia, whose two laments just missed the intensity of sound (although she acted the role superbly). Helen Sherman’s acting as Poppea was devastatingly sexual, and she sang with great verve and panache, but I don’t think she quite matched these in subtlety.
But over the whole show presided Erin Helyard, the musical director, who had also arranged the music, realising it from its original form. The original print has just a voice part and a bass, with even hardly any figures to indicate the harmony, and occasionally a couple of violin parts. Monteverdi’s dissonance treatment is so advanced and unpredictable that it takes an ear staggeringly well-versed in the style to recreate the harmonies. Such an ear Helyard has. He also understands Monteverdi’s superb grasp of musical structure (who “did” structure before Monteverdi?) – unlike Raymond Leppard, whose otherwise commendable realisation of this work show that he couldn’t distinguish between the recitatives and the arias…
The vast majority of Pinchgut’s productions are of operas written between 1680 and 1780, and the players understand the styles involved very well indeed. But the 1640s are different. It is vastly to Helyard’s credit that he guided the orchestra and he singers through this much more unfamiliar territory, producing such a racy yet coherent performance in the musical terms of reference contemporary with its composer.
And it is difficult to overstate the magnificence of the opera itself. Faster-moving than Mozart, more true to prevalent theories of drama than Wagner, and without later imitations in almost any respect, it is one of the truly great combinations of music and theatre. Despite the prolixity of this review, I have not talked about the plot, and given very imprecise accounts of the performance – this is more a review for those who have already seen the opera, for that audience to throw their own ideas against, than an explanation for those who haven’t seen it – but – well, go and see it if you haven’t already, it is a theatrical and musical experience unlike any other – disturbing, challenging, but beautiful and deeply rewarding.
Pinchgut Opera presents
Coronation of Poppea
Director Mark Gaal
Venue: City Recital Hall | Angel Place, Sydney NSW
Dates: 30 Nov – 6 Dec 2017
Bookings: (02) 8256 2222 | www.pinchgutopera.com.au