Finally available on DVD: David Alden´s deservedly acclaimed staging of L´Incoronazione di Poppea previously seen in Munich, Paris, Welsh National Opera, New Israeli Opera and now filmed in Barcelona.
I have often heard this staging referred to as the “chess-board” production. However, I find this hard to justify as only during the last 20 minutes do we see quadrants of black and white, which in any care to me were more reminiscent of a kitchen floor than a chess-board. That Poppea and Nero are somehow pieces in a game of chess, is something I do not read into this production at all, in fact.
The superb libretto is relatively straight-forward: Poppea, previously married to Ottone, schemes to become Nero´s Empress. First, however, she has to get rid of his present wife (Ottavia), whom Nero expels from Rome after a failed attempt on Poppea´s life ordered by Ottavia and executed by Ottone. Thus a happy end where Nero marries Poppea. And in real-life a less than happy end, as Nero allegedly kicked the pregnant Poppea to death a couple of years later.
I find this staging more intuitive than intellectual, set in no specific time, presenting a mix between the authentically modern and the surrealistic, the serious and the comic/grotesque, the elegant and the tasteless. Often these ambiguities may be seen in the same scene. In one of the best scenes, we see Seneca (Nero´s adviser, whom he has ordered to commit suicide), just before his death, surrounded is surrounded by grotesquely clad pupils, who in the end play yo-yo. The empress Ottavia´s nurse is a parody of a Red Cross nurse, while Poppea´s nurse is in tasteless drag. Decors are simple, often red or purple with a single chair or sofa. Not to mention the Goddesses of Fortune and Virtue in tasteless party dress with plateau heels.
It is a truly remarkable staging in which David Alden succeeds in striking the exact right chord between the grotesque and the serious. I do believe he has a valid: There is much grotesqueness an excessiveness to be found in the plot amid all the seriousness. I found the personenregie is exciting as well. Here Nero is clearly a disturbed, narcissistic character with virtually no physical interaction between him and Poppea, who on the other hand is less a manipulator than seen with Carsen in his Glyndebourne production.
I have been told that Nero´s part lies vastly better for a mezzo-soprano than for the counter-tenor, which, for dramatical reasons I normally prefer in these parts. In any case, Sarah Connelly is just as convincing as a Roman Emperor here as she was as Giulio Cesare. Miah Persson is a wonderful Poppea with excellent vocal characterization and then she is very beautiful as well, which obviously does not detract from he performance. Of the others I especially found Franz-Josef Selig´s Seneca imposing, with the appropriate sonorous ring to his low notes.
Of the alternatives on DVD I would recommend Robert Carsen´s production from Glyndebourne as well, more elegant perhaps, though this is the most challenging production of the two.
Death of Seneca, one of the best scenes where Alden strikes the right balance between the grotesque and the deadly (no pun intended) serious:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Miah Persson: 5
Sarah Connelly: 5
Maite Beaumont: 3-4
Franz-Josef Selig: 5
Jordi Deménech: 3
Ruth Rusique: 3-4
David Alden´s production: 5
Harry Bicket: 4
Overall impression: 5