Monday, December 18, 2006

Nero Fiddles (with himself) While Rome Burns - L'Incoronazione di Poppea at LA Opera

I love Baroque music. I love Baroque opera. If Baroque opera were a dessert, it would be pie, because I love it just that much. But you know how some crazy motherfuckers put a slice of cheddar cheese on their pie? And you know how that ruins the pie and makes it a foul thing? Well, it's the same with Baroque opera and people putting crap on it. I mean, yeah, if you scrape the cheese off the pie, you'd still have some edible bits underneath, but the whole delicious top crust would be missing. That's how I felt about LA Opera's production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea (only I don't mean cheese in the more traditional sense exactly); it was like I was trying to pull the nasty bits of out-of-place cheddar cheese off the top of a delicious apple pie. The yummy spices and sweetness were still there, but there was a lot of crap to scrape off before you got to it.

LA Opera does deserve major kudos for even putting the opera on in the first place, since Baroque opera, particularly early Baroque opera, really isn't their usual shtick. They did Giulio Cesare a few years ago, and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (which is on the later end of the Baroque), and they'd planned to do Poppea but cancelled, but mostly, it's all Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and some Wagner when they feel like torturing their audience with Robert Wilson's latest dropped deuce. They deserve further kudos for using period instruments, a scaled-down orchestra, and hiring a conductor who is an early music expert, Harry Bicket (he is also an expert on having a funny name). The problem? Having a small, period-instrument orchestra play in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is like a porn star using a regular tampon--it's going to get lost (I'm sorry, I tried to think of a non-offensive analogy, but I couldn't!). As Michael Hackett said in the pre-performance lecture, operas like Poppea were performed in 42' x 42' rooms, not ginormous tacky barns like the Dorothy Chandler. A lot of the intimacy and detail was lost as the music floated through the cavernous space. Almost all the music was audible, but I feel like the true feel of early Baroque--the intimacy, the warmth, the texture--was missing. If it had been performed as a concert version at the Disney Hall across the street, it would've been perfect. Also, someone at LA Opera seems to think that Baroque stages must always project weirdly into the audience in some way. For Poppea, there was an orchestra gash instead of an orchestra pit, and on either side of it, the stage jutted out, which made it hard to see from the balcony. Of course, the fuckbags in front of me, all of whom seemed to be descended from Conan O'Brien and the moai on Easter Island, had to lean forward to see was was going on, completely obstructing my view in the process.

L'Incoronazione di Poppea has a wonderfully lyrical and intelligent libretto, but even it is a bit odd. The words are gorgeous and--for lack of a better word--deep, but the plot isn't very well put together. Or maybe I'm just an idiot. Probably it's both. It seemed to have a cast of thousands (well, there were thousands of characters, but fewer singers), so some singers had multiple roles. Since their characters were rarely introduced or named, it was difficult to figure out if they were supposed to be the same person or not. With Hanan Alattar, who played Amor and Dimagella, it was easy to tell, because one of her characters was a god/goddess while the other was a peasant girl or something. With Nicholas Phan, who played Lucano, some guy, and that dude in the back dressed stupidly looking stupid, it was more difficult to tell. Even though Lucano was a named character, I didn't know who the hell he was or why he was making out with Nerone...but we'll get to that salty goodness later. Anyway, the plot wasn't complex, but all the characters made it seem that way. It reminded me a bit of Hamlet really, which is kind of flabby in places, probably so the people who were playing double roles could change costumes. The guy in pajamas who mocked Seneca was apparently Ottavia's page even though he never had a scene with her (that I can remember), and he had a little love duet with Dimagella that was supposed to contrast with Seneca's suicide, but all through it, I was mostly thinking "Who is this guy, why is he wearing pajamas, and why should I care?" LA Opera, who has their supertitles written by a thousand monkeys changed to a thousand typewriters and pumped full of Jagermeister, further confused matters by making their supertitles tell the audience things that weren't true. Maybe that was a meta-statement of some kind, but the much more likely scenario is that they're dumbfucks. When Ottavia was telling Ottone to kill Poppea, in the supertitles, she kept going on and on about how he owed her some kind of debt. Did he borrow her chariot while his was in the shop? In reality, she was commanding him to kill Poppea because she's the Empress, damn it, and she gets to tell people what to do and feed them to lions if they refuse. It was really difficult to root for anyone, because Ottavia was an obnoxious shrew (this was more because of who played her), Ottone was a pussy, Nerone has obvious personality disorders (not so much in the opera, but in history. Crazy bastard.), Seneca offed himself in Act II, and Poppea was just...blah. So, um, Nutrice FTW, I guess!

The staging was pretty minimalist, so it didn't annoy me too much. It didn't do much to create a setting though, so I couldn't understand why Nerone and Poppea were groping each other in the street where Ottone had been a second before, or why Ottavia was lamenting her husband's infidelity in the same street, but whatever. I didn't care for the giant ball in the first act, which seemingly every character embraced or otherwise rubbed as if it were the disembodied belly of a giant Buddha. Another annoyance is LA Opera's Robert-Wilson-induced obsession with little boys painted white. In the prologue of the opera, when Fortune, Virtue, and Love are supposed to be singing about who was the most powerful (a divine pissing contest!), Amor was sung by a woman in white, but the little boy who was perched on top of the ball was also supposed to be Love (Cupid, I guess). Why bother with the kid at all? It just seemed like a waste of white body paint. Another LA Opera obsession is silly walks, and Poppea's phalanx of nursemaids were straight out of Robert Wilson's ridiculous Madama Butterfly with their shuffling bent-arm-Ken-doll walks. The stage direction was particularly bad. Most of the time, people would stand on opposite sides of the orchestra gash, facing away from each other, while singing about how much they loved each other. Maybe this has some deep significance or something, but it just made things a bit cold. There was also a lot of uncontrollable falling down on Poppea's part. She kept running out onstage and then just collapsing for no apparent reason. She should call Brad Goodman about that before she gets any more symptoms from the Feel Bad Rainbow. After all, one of the colors in that rainbow is nagging, and in real life, Poppea nagged Nero and he kicked in her pregnant stomach and killed her.

The LA Times had a big article on Emi Wada, who designed the costumes for the production, and though some of them were neat-looking and I liked the way the textiles were used, most of them seemed kind of inappropriate. A few of the dresses were quite pretty, and the red one that Poppea wore in the end of Act I (?) at least looked Roman-inspired. Some of the costumes were too obviously Japanese-inspired, which would be fine for an opera that doesn't have a specific historical setting, but Poppea clearly takes place in Imperial Rome, and something tells me that there wasn't a whole lot of Japanese influence in fashion back then. Emi Wada does deserve credit for using her Bed, Bath & Beyond gift certificates to buy materials for the costumes. Ottavia looked like she was wearing that non-skid rubberized net stuff that's used to keep rugs from being too slippery. Poppea appeared to have been attacked by a macrame plant holder, Seneca wore a throw rug, and the Stoics wore window valances. The costumes were also quit random. For example, Ottavia's page wore Renaissance-style pajamas, and his girlfriend wore a more Renaissance-style dress as well. Most of Nero's stiff robes make him seem to have stepped out of a Klimt painting, and Ottone looked like a golden condom with a reservoir tip. The Senate had Mayan pyramids on their heads like the ancient ancestors of Devo, while the rest of them seemed to have wandered in from a production of Die Zauberflöte, and Arnalta was dressed in a progressively more haphazard preschool art project. She started out looking like an oil derrick caught in a Roman blind, and ended up looking like a paper plate collage that a kid would give their parents for Xmas. There was some serious ugly on that stage, and I bet it was expensive ugly at that. Come on, people, it's Rome--just buy a buttload of white sheets and you're done!

But I'm becoming Mark Swed-esque and complaining about everything but the singers. It's a serious undertaking. I mean, that cast list is ginormous. Most of the random singers, the ones who were just like those Muppets who just mill around in the background but don't have names or hit people with fish or anything, seemed vocally out of place with the Baroque music. They would've been more suited to singing the bit parts in La Bohème. The only one who really stood out to me was Nicholas Phan who, when he was wearing his Lucano hat, had some great tenor-on-tenor action with Kurt Streit. Even some of the main singers weren't vocally suited to the Baroque style. Christine Brandes had a sweet voice as Drusilla, but she could've been singing anything--Sophie in Werther, or, um, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Basically she could have been any number of Sophies, just not a Baroque Sophie. Many of them had too much vibrato. In Baroque opera, the voice usually matches the musical line pretty closely (which is what the people in the Renaissance assumed was the style of the Greeks of old), and since period instruments can't or don't hold notes the way modern ones do (compare the harpsichord to the piano, for instance), everything is quite staccato, and the singing should be as well. You hit the note quick and clean and then you go right on to the next one.

I'm not sure how I feel about all the genderfuckery going on at LA Opera. First it was the tenor-as-witch in Hansel & Gretel, and now it's tenor-as-nursemaid in Poppea. Christopher Gillett as Poppea's nurse Arnalta was good comic relief, but it was very hard to forget that it was a man...especially when he whipped off his stupid headdress to reveal a mostly bald head. Like Graham Clark in Hansel & Gretel, Gillett didn't seem to make any effort vocally to sound more feminine either. I don't mean he should've simpered or anything, but there are ways to do it. I mean, if a baritone can make himself somehow sound like a teenage girl without ever raising the pitch of his voice, surely a tenor can make himself sound a little more cronish and desiccated. I could see the potential for an Upstairs-Downstairs kind of thing with Arnalta, Nutrice, and the page, but the scenes weren't quite effective to me.

Reinhard Hagen as Seneca had the black, cavernous sound of a usual Baroque bass, but his voice also had some warmth and uniqueness to it. His low notes weren't always quite there, which is weird, since I think he played Sarastro in LA and that's a very low role, but Baroque operas are sung slightly lower than modern ones, so maybe that's what was troubling him. The confrontation between him and Nerone could've been slightly more dramatic, but Seneca was a Stoic, so I don't think he goes in much for the big emotion.

Ottavia, Nero's wife, is probably the most sympathetic character in the opera, and in the right hands, her laments about being exiled would've been very moving, but in this production, she just seemed whiny and annoying. I didn't pity her and was actually somewhat disappointed when she wasn't boiled in a pit of oil onstage as her historical counterpart was. Maybe I would've felt differently if the role had been sung by a better singer. Being bombarded by Frederica von Stade's wobbly, inappropriately melodramatic outbursts didn't endear her to me at all. Von Stade and Susan Graham both indulged in some very unseemly screaming and maniacal laughing that seemed out of place with the Baroque music. Those kind of hysterical, breast-beating displays seem more at home in verismo opera, in my opinion.

David Daniels may be the most popular countertenor in the world, but he certainly isn't the best. He's a fine physical actor (he really made Ottone a pathetic sad sack), and his voice no longer makes me cringe and say "very disturbing" like Bart Simpson hearing Ned Flanders sing "Ave Maria", but his voice is too soft-grained and fuzzy. Even though Baroque music is a mainstay of the countertenor repertoire, his voice is too fuzzy to navigate the quick passages of coloratura. Also, he sounds like a pigeon. Instead of pining after Poppea, he should've just said, "Fine, go be Empress! But when they make a statue of you, I'm going to perch on your head and poo all over it!" If Ottavia had had any sense, she would've just thrown some bread crumbs on Poppea and let Ottone peck her to death. That would've been more Roman than a simple knife through the heart anyway. It would've been interesting to see what Andreas Scholl, he of the laser-accurate coloratura, could've done with the role, but I don't think I'd like to see him be such a pussy. If Daniels could've been fierce or angry just once, it might've made all the difference. I still wouldn't have liked his voice, but the character would've intrigued me more.

The first time I heard Kurt Streit in a Baroque role was as Grimoaldo in the DVD of Rodelinda, and though he was incredibly hot from all the lipstick he was wearing, I had some reservations about his singing. It never sounded like he was really getting into the coloratura very deeply, like all the trills between notes were very superficial. It doesn't affect the quality of his performance at all in the end; it just sounded odd to me. He sounded the same as Nerone. As with several of the other characters, it was difficult to know how to feel toward Nerone. Historically, he's evil and crazy; in the opera, he's just kind of horny. Yeah, he can say that Poppea is his sun and that he loves her and everything, but you can do the fortune cookie trick and just slap "between the sheets" after everything he says to her, and I think it would be more accurate. He's all about id and instant gratification. Seneca disagrees? Tell him to kill himself; no more disagreement. Though I don't buy into the Freudian crap, the clash between Nerone's id and Seneca's superego made their confrontation interesting. Nerone is also about pleasure and the body. He tastes, touches, and smells Poppea onstage. When he was singing about her, Streit would totally grab his junk. Granted it was more of a little-boy-who-has-to-wee sort of grab than an erotic grab, but still. When confronted with the possibility of not having her, he doubled over like he was trying to catch his breath.

For all of his sexual fixation on Poppea though, the most erotic scene in the opera was actually between Nerone and Lucano, in my opinion. I'm usually not a fan of the slash stuff, especially when there's no textual basis for it, but this was hot. They came out on stage together, celebrating Seneca's death (which opened the door for Nerone's marriage to Poppea), and they were just kind of hugging. And then they started kind of running their hands over each other...and then they started nuzzling each other...and finally, Nerone leaned over and kissed Lucano. What made the scene so interesting to me is that Poppea, even though she never appeared in the scene, was like the wine fueling their drunken frat-boy adventures. They were intoxicated by the idea of Poppea, the possibility of having Poppea. Well, Nerone was; I don' t know Lucano's deal was. The mix of Streit and Phan's voices was nice too. On the LA Opera website, they have a video of one of the rehearsals with a bit of this scene in it. All you see is Nicholas Phan, and his voice is a nice, light tenor, kind of what I hear when I think of Kurt Streit's voice, oddly enough. Then, off-camera, Streit starts singing, and it's like PhanPlus. It's the same light tenor sound, but it's richer and more focused and full of body and dimension. It's like gold compared to pyrite. They're both pretty and glittery, but the gold is just more somehow. And I guess in some ways (though we never learn anything about Lucano except that he likes to kiss guys), Lucano may be about impulse and sensuality, but that's what Nerone is. Going back to Brad Goodman, if it feels good, Nerone does it.

Oddly enough, though she can apparently inspire intense man-lust, Poppea was kind of a non-entity in the opera, a somnambulist who wandered out on stage once in a while to have a nap or to have her privates nosed at by Nero. Susan Graham's voice was full, warm, beautiful, and carrying, but it wasn't very seductive, and I didn't feel that she showed Poppea's ambition. Everyone was being ambitious for Poppea--she just wanted to go to sleep. Nerone and Ottone were both fixed on her to the point of obsession; I suspect that the glitter that fell on her at the end of the scene was probably being channeled straight from her own hoo-ha, because why else would Nerone and Ottone want her so much? To me, it felt like she was just an object, a catalyst--other people acted in order to get Poppea, but she was always kind of passive. Seneca had to die because of her; Ottone had to murder because of her; Nerone had to order all sorts of horrible things to get her, but she really didn't do all that much herself. If Graham had had some fire of ambition in her (and if she hadn't been told to lay on the ground in a heap of ugly fabric all the time), maybe I would've felt differently. Still, her voice blended beautifully with Streit's in the gorgeous last duet ("Pur ti miro, pur ti godo"), but the direction made it decidedly non-romantic and non-sexual, since they weren't even facing each other or standing near one another most of the time.

In all, L'Incoronazione di Poppea was the most successful and satisfying production that LA Opera has performed so far this season. With a few adjustments--OK, with an overhaul of the costumes, direction, staging, and a few recasting *cough*Flicka*cough*--it would've be nearly perfect. That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, I'm sure, but really, I'm just glad to see Baroque opera being performed. If done correctly, the music is extremely enjoyable, and in the hands of the right singer-actors, the stories can be dramatically intense and beautifully sung. Baroque opera will always tend toward being static; the composers were still working through how to do it, so there is a lot of continuo, often a lot of arias, and little ensemble singing. A good director will work against that stasis, unlike Pierre Audi did in this production. Though Nero and Poppea might have fancied themselves gods on Earth in their time, they didn't hover around in little spheres of light, never touching one another. They were people, and people, when they're declaring their love for each other, look at each other. Though the audience was still pretty prickish, they seemed very appreciative at the end, so I know there are more early music enthusiasts out there, and there would be even more if directors stopped acting like because something is old, it's somehow distant or less accessible.

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