Claudio Monteverdi: Poppeas Kröning, Drottningholms Slottsteater, Stockholm, 6 August 2009
The second opera seen in Sweden, at the authentic, and authentically uncomfortable, theatre at the Royal Palace of Drottningholm, with its prodigious record of authentic performances of early opera, now under the musical direction of Mark Tatlow, was Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, again billed under its Swedish title, though sung in Italian. This was eagerly anticipated following last year’s memorable production of that composer’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, being again directed by Johanna Garpe (Summer Gardens, loc cit).
Poppea tells a variant of the age-old story of a young woman who embarks on a passionate affair with a man of power, with the ambition to displace his current consort, who reacts with vindictiveness or dignity or each in turn, as in this case. Similarities to Semele and Jove at one end to examples from contemporary real life at the other are brought to mind. Indeed one could imagine this Poppea being the sort to take a tape-recorder into the bedroom.
The production gets off to a gripping start, both musically and dramatically; one’s reaction to the opening scenes is how much better it is than last year’s misconceived Glyndebourne production (loc cit). Following the Prologue with the goddesses, Love, Fortune and Virtue, played by men in drag, there are vivid depictions of Ottone’s way to the house of his mistress barred by Nero’s guards followed by the emergence of post-coital Nero and Poppea, he reluctant to depart, she to let him go. Their love scenes are genuinely erotic but tasteful (by twenty-first century standards). These lovers are young, Nero too young to have an established spouse, Ottavia, who behaves with appropriate dignified fury.
Sadly the momentum of the opening scenes is not maintained. It becomes apparent that the director has had to work with severely constrained resources, not consistent with Monteverdi’s opulence of score and casting. We discover that the eighteen listed cast are performed by eleven singers and this excludes the counterbalance of the innocent lovers Valletto and Damigella who are omitted, as are Seneca’s retainers. There is no chorus; the finale has Poppea enthroned on a bench, the goddesses and other cast forming a background tableau. Likewise, the orchestra is limited to twelve players who nevertheless make a brave effort to represent the richness of the score. The three acts are condensed to two; the first ends with Seneca’s imposed suicide, witnessed not by grieving students but by the two guards and a disguised Poppea. This diminishes the impact of this important tragic element of the opera.
Within these limitations this is an intelligent production, a little too serious for my taste. It was beautifully staged in Drottningholm’s characteristic baroque style, focussing on the relationships of Nero, Poppea and Ottavia, pointed by the two ladies forced to exchange garments at the end, implying a role reversal not quite ‘true’, and hinting at Poppea’s fate to follow. The singing was of a high standard though none was heart-stopping. I noted Christopher Ainslie’s clear account of Ottone. Ottavia was performed by Matilda Paulsson, her dignified Addio Roma forming a poignant prelude to the triumphalist finale. The voices of Charlotte Hellekant and Ingela Bohlin as Nerone and Poppea blended wonderfully as their adulterous relationship became redeemed by the Food of Love.
This year we travelled to Drottningholm by boat from Stockholm Town Hall along the banks of Lake Mälaren, initially crowded with dwellings of all ages from the traditional red to modern white opening up to views of the landscape as we approached the Palace grounds. Afterwards a convenient Theatre Bus took us back in comfort to the centre of Stockholm, with the strains of the opera still singing in our ears, avoiding the stress of driving!