Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2022 Review: L’Incoronazione di Poppea

Stunning Presentation Headed by Stucker & Arditti

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: Ruth Walz)

It never ceases to surprise how Monteverdi’s operas prove themselves time and again to be not just supreme examples of how the art form succeeds as a dramatic medium, able to communicate directly with present day audiences, with characters who resonate so clearly with the modern mind, even over a distance of 400 years, but also the degree to which the operas lend themselves to a variety of stagings.

This was proved yet again in Aix-en-Provence festival’s superb production of “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.”

It was a presentation over which the gods themselves appeared to have an interest, as everything combined brilliantly to create a powerful and intense piece of theatre. From the surroundings of the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, which allowed the audience an intimate and up-close seat, to the expert guidance of the stage director Ted Huffman, and the musical direction of Leonardo Garcia Alarçon, everything came together, crystallizing in a riveting and compelling reading which had the audience on its feet at the final curtain, with the bravos ringing out around the auditorium.

Yet, this was all achieved with what amounted to little more than an empty stage, and what was mostly a relatively young, but talented cast, with limited experience.

Stucker & Arditti Create Electrifying Relationship

At the centre of the opera is the relationship between Poppea and Nerone, around which all else rotates. And it was this crucial feature which was brilliantly defined and brought alive by soprano Jacquelyn Stucker and countertenor Jake Arditti. This was no ordinary, run-of-the mill portrayal, together they created an electrifying relationship which surged and pulsated with a wild, untamed lust, in which all moral restraint was thrown to the wind. The sexual tension was palpable even during scenes where matters were focused on mundane matters, such as having Seneca killed.

Stucker was a sensual, seductive and manipulative Poppea who actively engaged with Nero’s debauched court, even to the extent of involving herself in Nerone’s sex games.

Arditti was a virile, volatile and domineering Nerone, always on the edge, prone to explosive rages.

Both produced compelling singing performances. Stucker possesses a wonderfully expressive voice, with an interesting, colorful pallet which she used intelligently to imbue her voice with an alluring sensuality quality. Her phrasing was detailed and carefully moulded to fit the text, and displayed her fine technique to good effect. She projects her voice sensitively and clearly, and when the voice opens up, it possesses an attractive full-bodied quality, which allowed her to successfully intensify her emotional state.

Arditti arrived bare chested, unambiguously announcing his character’s physical proclivities. His voice possesses a bright homogeneous tone, which he used skillfully to characterize Nerone’s volatility with fast changing dynamic and emotional accents. It is also a versatile voice, which allowed him to construct intricate ornamentations, dispatch coloratura passages and leaps, that further emphasized his mental instability. There was also a strong, overt confidence in his singing which underlined Nerone’s position as emperor.

In the final duet “Pur timiro, pur ti godo” their voices combined beautifully, and with such delicate sensitivity that the sexual tension, which up to this point had defined their relationship, simply dissipated, and was replaced by genuine love, bringing the opera to a happy close. Yet, there is something in the music that doe not sit well with what has gone before. It is too harmonious, too sweet, too glib. More likely, Monteverdi is mocking their love.

A 17th century audience would have been well aware that their love was short-lived, and that Nerone was believed to have kicked a pregnant Poppea to death. In this light, the music takes on on a different meaning, and certainly it is not a celebration of love.

Huffman’s Clear Sighted Direction

Clearly, Huffman’s expert handling of the interaction between Poppea and Nerone was critical to the success of the production. Wishing to maximize the sexual intensity and tensions within the relationship, every gesture, every glance was carefully managed. He also included scenes containing semi-nudity, so that every opportunity was taken to have Nerone bare chested, strutting around the stage, or Poppea bare breasted cavorting or playfully engaging with Nerone. Often, nudity on stage can appear gratuitous and intrusive, but not in this case! The effect was to introduce actual tension onto the stage. It also made Stucker’s performance all the more admirable; singing in such circumstances requires courage and strong nerves.

Despite having no scenery to talk of, and only the minimum of props, Huffman still managed to conjure up a picture of Nerone’s court as debauched and amoral. Two illustrative episodes which were particularly shocking were having Seneca’s dead body used as a plaything, as an object for amusement, and having Nerone encourage Poppea and Lucano take part in a three way sexual act.

The basic scenography, original concept by Johannes Schültz and revised by Anna Wörl, amounted to little more than a seating area, so that the characters not involved in a scene were able to observe what was happening. Oh yes, and there was a hanging wooden trunk that rotated above the stage, and having dismissed the idea of it being a phallic symbol as unworthy, its meaning remained impenetrable. Costumes, designed by Astrid Klein, were colorful, unobtrusive and modern.

Strong Supporting Performances

Although the others characters were secondary to Poppea and Nerone, many still had significant roles, and often played more than one part. Without exception, they all performed well.

Mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron presented a feisty portrait of Nerone’s wife Ottavia, in what was an expressively convincing performance. Identifying fully with her character, she gave voice to her highly charged emotions, capturing both her anger and her sadness, although she did occasionally overstep the mark. Without doubt the passion was there, but she may have benefited slightly from a little more subtly and less volume. She has a noticeably colorful pallet, which she used skillfully to bring depth to her recitatives. She also played the part of Virtù.

Tenor Miles Mykkanen produced a larger than life portrait of the Nutrice and Arnalta, hamming up the comedy for all it was worth, for which he showed a definite talent. The fact he is playing female roles, and at one point disguises himself as as man allowed for plenty of deliberate confusion over gender, and the seduction scene with Valletto was very amusing. He has naturally loud voice and would have no problem singing in large venues. For the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, however, he was too loud, occasionally drowning out the orchestra. Apart from this fact, he sang well, characterizing his voice very skillfully. He was also parted as Familgliare 1.

Ottone was costumed in short trousers, illustrating his immaturity, which Paul Antoine Bénos-Djian presented perfectly. Being a countertenor it was inevitable that he would end up standing somewhat in the shadow of Arditti whose role has a higher profile, and whose singing displayed far more expressivity and a greater degree of versatility, and of course they were rivals for Poppea. Nevertheless Bénos-Djian  proved his worth. His relative strength was in his ability furnish his voice with a freshness and colors which allowed him to stand distinct in his own right, which he used convincingly to define his character through some ambitiously crafted phrasing.

Bass Alex Rosen was cast in the role of Seneca, for which he produced a controlled, confident and authoritative performance, which allowed him to show off his attractive rich timbre. He was also parted as a Console.

Soprano Maya Kherani produced a lively and convincing performance in the roles of Drusilla and Fortuna. Although her articulation was not always clear, her singing displayed versatility in which her nicely embellished lines and perfectly rendered trills, along with her attractive timbre impressed.

The roles of Amore and Valleto were given animated performances by soubrette soprano Julie Roset. She sang with wonderful flexibility, shifting easily between mimicry, exaggeration and genuine emotion. Her bright, sweet toned voice was wonderfully expressive as well as being distinctly appealing.

Tenor Laurence Kilsby made a very good impression in the role of Nerone’s poet Lucano. His centerpiece was to take part in a drunken revelry which gave rise to the more debauched activities, such as mocking Seneca’s corpse by using it as what appeared to be a ventriloquist’s dummy, for which he displayed good acting skills. He also successfully essayed the roles of Tribuno, Saldato I and Famigliare II.

Soldato II, Liberto and Tribuno were played by tenor Riccardo Romeo, who created three confidently defined characters. He possesses a voice which was notable for its appealing timbre, and for his confident mode of expression.

Bass-baritone Yannis François was cast in the relatively small roles of Littore, Famigliare III and a Console for which he provided a series of refined performances, allowing him to show off his voice successfully.

Alarçon Provides A Dramatically Sensitive Reading

The musical director Leonardo Garcia Alarcón elicited a fabulously detailed sound from the twelve players of the Cappella Mediterranea, and conjured up an interesting array of colorful textures. There was also a fluidity, a frisson in their playing, far removed from exact, precise, lifeless attempts that one can occasionally hear. He took the players from passages with energetic dance-like rhythms to controlled, sensuous passages, always acting in tandem with the on stage drama. If there was a negative criticism to be made, it was that the balance was not always correct, the singers were too often allowed to dominate. Otherwise, this was an excellent performance, one which was attentive to the nature of the on stage drama.

This was a high intensity, emotionally full on production of “L’Incoronazione di Poppea,” and it worked brilliantly. Everybody concerned was working in the same direction, and the result was exceptional. Fortunately, it is a shared production with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Valencia and Opéra de Rennes, both of which will be staging it in 2023. Anyone who has the chance of attending a performance should take it. You will not regret it.


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