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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    L'Incoronazione di Poppea at the Zurich Opera House

    L'Incoronazione di Poppea, opera in one prologue and three acts, sung in Italian with German and English surtitles
    Libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello
    Premiered at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1643 carnival season

    This article is part of the Opera Lively coverage of opera houses in the German-speaking area of Central Europe in the Summer of 2018 - see the links to numerous other reviews, interviews, pictorial blogs, and other articles related to this coverage, by clicking [here]

    This review is of the performance on July 5, 2018, attended in person.

    This is a new production of Opernhaus Zürich by Calixto Bieito. For more information, tickets, and other dates in this run, click [here].

    Orchestra La Scintilla conducted by Ottavio Dantone
    Chorus of the Zurich Opera House
    Chorus Master Janko Kastelic

    A production of stage director Calixto Bieito
    Stage designer - Rebecca Ringst
    Costumes - Ingo Krügler
    Lighting designer - Franck Evin
    Video design - Sarah Derendinger
    Dramaturgy - Beate Breidenbach

    Cast

    Amore / 1. Famigliare - Jake Arditti
    Fortuna / Damigella - Florie Valiquette
    La Virtù / Venere - Hamida Kristoffersen
    Nerone - David Hansen
    Ottavia - Opera Lively interviewee Stéphanie D'Oustrac
    Poppea - Julie Fuchs
    Ottone - Delphine Galou
    Drusilla - Deanna Breiwick
    Nutrice - Manuel Nuñez Camelino
    Arnalta - Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
    Seneca - Nahuel Di Pierro
    Valletto - Gemma Ni Bhriain
    Lucano, Primo Soldato, 2. Famigliare - Thobela Ntshanyana
    Tribuno, Littore, 3. Famigliare - Michael Hauenstein
    Liberto, Secondo Soldato, Console - Kristofer Lundin

    ------------

    Written 370 years ago at the very dawn of operatic history, L’incoronazione di Poppea has remained a highlight in the operatic genre to this day, portraying modern human beings whose vanities, passions and darker sides are by no means far removed from our own. Poppea was the first of Monteverdi’s operas in which, rather than a mythological tale, he chose a historical, surprisingly amoral subject matter – which could certainly have been interpreted as a criticism of his own time. He was, however, less interested in the historical facts: Emperor Nero’s excesses and orgies are only marginally apparent in the opera. The composer was much more preoccupied with the protagonists’ calamitous involvement in power structures and their corruptibility.

    Poppea is in pursuit of one goal: to become Nero’s wife and replace Ottavia as Empress. Poppea unscrupulously deploys her feminine charms; Nero has long since been enthralled by her beauty. She skilfully puts Nero at odds with the philosopher Seneca, who has seen through her lust for power. For Poppea to become Empress, Seneca must die. Ottavia sees only one way to stop Poppea: she incites Ottone to murder Poppea, his unfaithful lover. However, the plan fails and instead gives Nero the eagerly awaited inducement to reject Ottavia officially. Poppea becomes Empress.

    Monteverdi has brilliantly captured Nero’s tyrannical hysteria and Poppea’s sensuality in music. As a musical dramatist, Monteverdi appears modern in our eyes for the indissoluble link he creates between language and music, through which he achieves a sense of great drama in short scenes, and through his virtuoso combination of comedy and tragedy.

    Julie Fuchs is giving her role début as Poppea, as is Nahuel Di Pierro as Seneca. Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Ottavia is doing if for only the second time after a couple of decades.

    After Zimmermann’s Soldaten and Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, Calixto Bieito is presenting his third directorial work at the Zurich Opera House. His partner at the podium is Ottavio Dantone, one of the leading conductors of Italian baroque music.

    -----------

    Review of the performance:

    This was the first time I attended in person a Calixto Bieito production. While I was unable to interview the man himself because he is no longer in Zürich, I talked about him with three of the Opera Lively interviewees during this coverage trip. Mr. Eule, the Deputy Intendant in Nürnberg, had worked with him as a dramaturg for his Les Troyens. He said, "Calixto now has calmed down a little; he has been more subdued." Mr. Homoki, the Opernhaus Zürich Intendant (who is himself a stage director) talked at length about Bieito in his interview with me this morning, and mentioned how these days Bieito is more interested in the psychological aspects of each character than in a larger concept for the staging. Finally, Stéphanie D'Oustrac, whom I interviewed right before tonight's performance, said he is a quiet man; he doesn't speak much, and doesn't say a lot about what he wants form the singer beyond some sparse guidelines - but does correct anything that isn't in agreement with his vision, along the rehearsals. She said, "he only told me that he was staging the story vaguely as if it happened in the world of fashion, and added "your character is a very powerful woman."

    It was with great expectation that I took my seat. Oh boy, I wasn't disappointed. I have just reached the mid-point of this opera marathon with 16 performances in as many consecutive nights - today was the 8th one, and this production was the second best so far, after the Bayerische Staatsoper's Parsifal.

    This was a brilliant piece of stage direction! There were clever and surprising touches everywhere, and the focus on each character's psychological arc couldn't be clearer, or more precise.

    Indeed, the fact that this is vaguely updated to a sort of fashion show is barely there and minimally intrusive. The stage is a circular catwalk that goes around the orchestra pit, in addition to a set of nightclub-like white set of stars, flanked by two sets of seats for the audience (therefore some patrons were seating on stage). There is a huge screen as background, plus 14 smaller ones, 7 on each side. Several cameras send simultaneous images of various parts of the stage to these 14 screens, as well as some video clips that supplement the stage action.

    Other than one moment during which characters walk around the catwalk like in a fashion show, no other mention is made of the fashion environment. What comes across is the individual drama of each character, which is greatly enhanced by the close-ups and video clips.

    Like Mr. Eule said, Mr. Bieito must indeed be evolving into a more subdued self, because there is no nudity whatsoever in this production. This is not to say that the show is not sexy. Much the opposite, it is actually sexier given that some very attractive people get pretty close to revealing some nudity but always stop short of it, to a tantalizing effect - sometimes comic. This starts from the very beginning, when in the prologue, Amore, Fortuna, and La Virtú are only dressed in men's white shirts. So, this very pretty young lady Florie Valiquette starts teasing La Virtú's prudish ways, and to demonstrate, strips out of her panties. As she bends to do that, the white shirt doesn't allow the audience to see her lady bits, but everybody assumes that once she stands up again, those bits will be visible. Well, no, because guess what, she is wearing panties of a different color under the first ones. Everybody laughs. La Virtú mocks her, and she decisively strips out of those panties too, but hey, she is wearing still another set, and then she keeps doing it, and it never ends. I didn't count but it's gotta be more than twenty. I don't know how she was able to fit so many there. She throws them to the audience, uses them as props, sticks them onto Amore's head, and keeps going, while the whole house is brought down in wild laughter.

    Six-month pregnant Julie Fuchs is one hell of a sexy lady. She lights the stage up on fire (figuratively... I gotta say it, because actually setting it on fire wouldn't be unexpected for Bieito, hehe) on facial expressions alone (with teasing eyes and tongue), not to forget her generous cleavage, and oh God, she is so pretty! Deanna Breiwich is also very beautiful with a great body, and she is seen in rather revealing underwear.

    Anyway, apparently Bieito highlighted the idea of the relationship between sex and power (this non-German-speaking journalist only got this much from his printed interview included with the programme, unfortunately in German only), and yes, there is sex, and there is power. There is also extraordinary psychological drama, especially in the gorgeous scene of Seneca's death (he gets a razor to commit suicide and leaves the stage, but then his suicide plays on the video clips on the 14 side screens, while the opera's action continues), and the even more impressive meltdown by Ottavia, with one of the genial touches I was talking about, when she goes to one of the angel faces that are part of the decoration of the opera house, and peels off a mask from the face, revealing bloody tears coming out of the angel's eyes.

    There is a bit of comedy too, with the festive scene of the coronation featuring golden heart-shaped balloons that the singers throw to the audience, and we got to play with them bumping them up and down all over the auditorium (again, roaring laughter). The members of the audience whose seats are on stage get a bit of interactive action, with characters sitting on their laps, yelling at them, messing up their hairs, etc. I can't describe another funny moment, one needs to see it to get it: the hilarious eating of some fruits by La Virtú and Amore. These comedic moments relax the audience a bit from the intense psychological drama, and they were well positioned.

    A Bieito hallmark is that he doesn't shy away from violence, and some bits are quite disturbing. Drusilla gets a beating from one of the soldiers (dressed as a private security agent) when she is accused of plotting Poppea's assassination, and the huge screen shows close-ups of her face being repeatedly smashed against a glass panel with blood splattering everywhere - a very realistic and shocking special effect.

    At the end Julie Fuchs exposes her pregnant belly, in the last image before the lights go off and the opera ends.

    In summary, the sets are beautiful, the over-the-top costumes (and the revealing ones) are interesting, blocking is a thing of genius, lighting and projections are incredibly helpful in highlighting and telling the story, and interesting events happen everywhere (there were many more that I didn't mention). Therefore, all aspects of the physical production get the maximum score of A++, with no exceptions, including the fabulously accomplished acting by every single artist, from the main roles all the way to the small ones.

    So, there is sex, and power, and drama, and comedy, and violence... and then, there is music.

    Oh! My! God! How did this opera house manage to gather such a sublime ensemble of singers??

    Who did better? It's really hard to know because several singers were phenomenal! Certainly at least four of them were of stratospheric quality:

    Stéphanie D'Oustrac, how can this tiny lady produce such huge sounds?? Well, I like the quote from our interviewee Ginger Costa-Jackson: "when tiny babies are crying they are pretty loud." So I guess size doesn't matter. Stéphanie projects hugely. I wouldn't have expected it. I have been following her career with great interest since her early work with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants (and interviewing her was a pleasure - she is also smart and charming), but had never heard her live. Given that on CD, DVD, and blu-ray there is sound engineering and capitation, we can never be too sure of how big or how small a voice is, and with her classification as *light* mezzo-soprano, I was expecting soft dynamics from her. Oh no. She could demolish the building with her sound! Not only she possesses incredible volume, but everything else about her voice is beautiful (not to forget her classy looks). What a tour-de-force as Ottavia!! Like I did in Parsifal, I'll need to grant some above-maximum scores here, and Ms. D'Oustrac fully qualifies for A+++.

    Same thing with Julie Fuchs. I have her CD "Yes!" (highly recommended, by the way), and I've seen her on DVD and some video clips, and already enjoyed her voice very much, but the experience of listening to her about 9 yards from my seat was out of this world. I have already mentioned that she is very pretty and very sexy... and then, her voice is agile, pitch-perfect, also very well projected, technically accomplished, and oh so beautiful! It doesn't get any better than that. Another A+++.

    I wonder how the Hamburg house is feeling these days, with the blunder of cancelling her contract to sing there two months ago because she was 4-months pregnant, which caused a significant stir in Europe. Six-months pregnant now, she delivered a radiant performance, making the people who made this unfortunate decision in Hamburg look pretty silly.

    David Hansen apparently wasn't the original countertenor for this production. I don't know what happened to the initial one; I forgot to ask and didn't look it up in this intensive trip where I'm having less time to do my usual homework (it could have been due to multiple casting for different nights, or maybe he got sick) but in any case, whatever the reason, his colleague wasn't missed, because David did a great job (unlike many countertenors, he has a lot of ping and volume). I'm very demanding with countertenors, one of my favorite voice types, and I tend to compare them to my preferred one Philippe Jaroussky, so I am often unhappy with the ones who, let's say, are the not-Jaroussky type - which would be all of them, naturally... (Hehe, I exaggerate; there are several other good ones, of course, and what I'm saying is intended as a joke). A++.

    Another excellent singer was Nahuel di Pierro; very impressive with great dramatic colors and musicality and pretty timbre of voice. A++ too.

    So, these four were a luxury cast, but the smaller roles were for the most part very well staffed, as well. Delphine Galou was a very good Ottone in a pants role, and displayed some of the most extraordinary acting job in the evening; A+ singing, A+++ acting.

    Of the three singers doing the prologue, Jake Arditi was the best one. Hamida Kristoffersen and Florie Valiquette were better actresses than singers, especially the latter. Deanna Breiwich was fine as Drusilla.

    All male comprimario roles performed beautifully. The Seneca death scene had a goosebumping true stereo or surround effect... when the director placed one male singer on each side singing from the lateral boxes, and the three prologue figures singing from the back.

    La Scintilla, a very good Baroque ensemble under Ottavio Dantone, played delicately and softly, allowing the singers to blossom. They were impeccable and earned another A++.

    In summary, this was a great evening of extremely entertaining theatrical arts and sublime music, and this performance easily qualifies as the best L'incoronazione di Poppea I've ever seen. My respect for Mr. Bieito went exponentially up, the cast was great, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to witness first hand such a fantastic show. This Opernhaus Zürich new production gets from Opera Lively the overall maximum score of A++.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); July 9th, 2018 at 08:00 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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  3. #2
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Pictorial blog, Zurich

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    To be continued, in the other two reviews of the Opernhaus Zürich productions.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Production pictures for this show are in, courtesy of the Press Department, and copyright Monika Rittershaus:

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); July 5th, 2018 at 01:39 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Wow. Looks amazing!
    Natalie

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    The review of this performance has been published. Scroll up to the first post, to read it.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Staff Member Top Contributor Member Hoffmann's Avatar
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    I’m envious. After seeing the Bieito Carmen last year in Paris, which is the finest and most successful staging of an opera I have come to dread, I am a fan of his work.

    We have L’Incoronazione di Poppea here in Berlin next week at the Staatsoper (I don’t recall if this is on your schedule also). The Staatsoper production is directed by Eva-Maria Höckmayr and features Max Emanuel Cencic and Xavier Sabata. Having seen the stunning Bejun Mehta last week, I will have had a real tour of several of the world’s leading countertenors. I don’t imagine that this production will be in the same league visually as Zürich, however.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hoffmann View Post
    I’m envious. After seeing the Bieito Carmen last year in Paris, which is the finest and most successful staging of an opera I have come to dread, I am a fan of his work.

    We have L’Incoronazione di Poppea here in Berlin next week at the Staatsoper (I don’t recall if this is on your schedule also). The Staatsoper production is directed by Eva-Maria Höckmayr and features Max Emanuel Cencic and Xavier Sabata. Having seen the stunning Bejun Mehta last week, I will have had a real tour of several of the world’s leading countertenors. I don’t imagine that this production will be in the same league visually as Zürich, however.
    Cencic does unhinged very well so should be a good Nerone. His tone is not always as beautiful as Mehta's though
    Natalie

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Oh God, these reviews put together late at night after exhausting travel and running around are full of typos! I've corrected the ones I (now) noticed, and the one for Berlin. I should read again all the other 14 reviews! I haven't had the time to do that.

    Indeed, Cencic's tone gets weird in the high notes, like when we have a small loudspeaker that gets overwhelmed and distorts the sound. Other than that, he does well, but I did prefer the Zürich Nerone, as you can see in my review of the Berlin show.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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