Teatro Comunale (Bologna): February 19, 2002
L’Incoronazione di Poppea is an intimate work; the lusts, loves, intrigues, betrayals, and even suicide are done in private. Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, though it only seats 1,000, might seem too big for it, particularly in an Historically Informed Performance led by early music dynamo Rinaldo Alessandrini, but stage director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown have made certain that the audience gets every bit of cynicism and subtlety Monteverdi and his librettist Francesco Busanello cooked up.
Alessandrini uses just 10 members of the Comunale’s String Section (plus two trumpeters for the Coronation Scene itself) and they are seated, audience level, stage right. The stage has been lowered–four short steps, used as part of the show during the opera’s action, lead directly to the players; the singers enter and leave occasionally through the audience, past the instrumentalists. Alessandrini conducts from the harpsichord. The left side of the stage is similarly brought out into the audience in a semicircle; we are very close to the action.
Cupid (Amore), when he apears, shows up in boxes all around the house, at all levels–love is everywhere. The vaguely art deco sets are laquered wood with pale scenes of ancient Rome, and also circular; they open and close to reveal staircases, little rooms for Seneca’s students, etc. The costumes are roaring ’20s, ’30s and ’40s–Poppea is in very suggestive evening wear, Ottone and Nerone are in tuxedos (except after Seneca’s suicide, when Nerone sports a celebratory bright red, strapless gown with a red feather boa), the nurses of Poppea and Ottavia (in drag of course) are dressed like Margaret Dumont in Marx Brothers films, Seneca and his followers are in shirtsleeves and brown suits, like casual students at Oxford might have been. Time and place can be a corrupt, decadent when- and wherever.
Alessandrini uses his own edition of the score; much of the prolog is cut as are most scenes involving the page and his girlfriend: he and Vick evidently agree that concentration should remain on the main characters and their lasciviousness.
At first hearing, the Poppea of Angeles Blanca Gulin did not bode well. She scooped up to notes in her first duet with Debora Beronesi’s Nerone; later it became clear that this was supposed to be sexy, much like jazz singers’ “blue notes.” Ultimately both she and Beronesi proved themselves excellent Monteverdians, singing with beauty of tone, agility and commitment, and acted like the horny youngsters they are. Ottone was sung by a mezzo-soprano rather than a countertenor (as is today’s custom) and it worked brilliantly: Sonia Prina’s voice is actually more like a contralto and very powerful, and since Ottone controls much of the action, this was just fine. Ottavia was seen as a shrew, worthy of getting rid of, and Monica Bacelli sang her almost with veristic punch, verging on sprechgesang at times–a brilliant coup that even early music purists (and if Alessandrini isn’t one, who is?) couldn’t object to. Giorgio Surian’s Seneca was appropriately self-righteous and gloomy, and Roberto Balconi’s glorious performance as Arnalta, Poppea’s ambitious nurse, was remarkable: after an almost entire evening of high camp, (s)he delivered a tender, long-lined lullaby to Poppea which made us want to like both her and her vicious mistress.
The playing by the string/continuo complement–including two harpsichords, two therobos and harp–was wonderful. Alessandrini and Vick managed to bring this ancient story right into our laps. The performance was the 3rd of seven; it will be repeated on the 20th, 22nd, 24th and 26th of February. Bravi tutti–Monteverdi and Busenello would have been snidely laughing to themselves.