A ruthless dictator falls in love with a sexy woman. Together, they get rid of every obstacle in their way: his wife, her former lover, and also the voice of reason. Everything is sacrificed to passion, in this tale where evil triumphs, virtue and reason are humiliated, and nothing corresponds to our moral principles.

Kate Lindsey (Nerone) and Sonya Yoncheva (Poppea)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Maarten Vanden Abeele

Jan Lauwers, the director and choreographer, sets L'incoronazione di Poppea in a way congenial to his means: a visual artist, he translated the emotions expressed by Monteverdi’s music into dancing and visual images. The result was mixed; the general impression was one of many ideas, seemingly not fully developed or analysed. The stage was constantly cluttered with moving bodies, or tableau vivants, leaving a sense of confusion, and distracting from the music.

The opera starts with a prologue where Virtue, Fortune and Love discuss their influence on human affairs. Each divine persona was accompanied by a human painfully advancing on big crutches, each god helping their disabled companion: maybe a visualization of the gods helping a struggling humanity? During the whole opera a dancer stood in the middle of the raked stage, whirling around (different dancers took turns): maybe a suggestion of the Wheel of Fate incessantly turning and dragging humanity? During the Prologue, two cameramen filmed and projected on screen what was happening on and behind the stage, a sort of “making of”. This idea was then abandoned and not pursued further.

Sarah Lutz (dancer), Alessandro Fisher (Lucano), Sam Huczkowski (dancer), Kate Lindsey (Nerone)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Maarten Vanden Abeele

The musical production was in the capable hands of William Christie, and a compact version of Les Arts Florissants, comprised of 16 players. The ensemble was on stage, in two very shallow pits; the musicians often stood up when they had a prominent part, and were involved in the action by the singers. Christie conducted from the harpsichord; his reading of the score was light and at the same time dramatic, mostly based on the continuo, with a great variety in the accompaniment of the recitatives. The amazing musicianship of Christie’s ensemble was one of the main sources of joy of this performance.

For this Poppea Christie assembled a cast of the greatest quality. In the title role, Sonya Yoncheva put her luscious, supple soprano at the service of pre-Baroque music; she showed that she is an all-round artist, at home both in the early 1600s as she is in the late 1800s. Whoever worried about her voice being “too big” or with “too much vibrato” was silenced by her stunning performance. Her Poppea was unapologetically sexy; Yoncheva did not shy from sensuous, explicit acting, and seduced the whole audience. Her lover, Nerone, was Kate Lindsey, whose voice had a wonderful, deep, burnished timbre. The chemistry between the two protagonists was remarkable: without vulgar of explicit acting, the sensuousness between them was palpable. Lindsey’s Nero was a crazed, silly boy intoxicated with sex and power, lashing out whenever somebody dared question his whims. Lindsey found a squeezed, nasal, almost ugly voice to express Nero’s frustration and rage; as effective as this was, it happened too often for my taste. Nevertheless, her performance and interpretation were outstanding.

Sonya Yoncheva (Poppea)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Maarten Vanden Abeele

Stéphanie d’Oustrac was Ottavia, Nero’s spurned wife. She gave a perfect portrait of the outraged, humiliated aristocrat, with a strong, beautiful voice and dramatic accent. Her “Addio Roma” was moving and emotional. Countertenor Carlo Vistoli portrayed Ottone, Poppea’s former lover; his opening arioso “E pur io torno qui” was delivered with elegance and style. His transformation from a spurned lover into an unwilling assassin was believable and interesting.

The philosopher Seneca, the voice of reason who tries bringing Nero to his senses, was Renato Dolcini, whose voice did not sit quite as low as the part requires. Nevertheless, his interpretation was remarkable, and the character of the old philosopher came through. Lea Desandre was extremely convincing in her portrayal of Valletto, a naïve boy smitten by love for the first time, and also of the god who wounded his heart, Cupid. Her mezzo was very warm, and she had a great stage presence. 

Sonya Yoncheva (Poppea), Ensemble
© Salzburger Festspiele | Maarten Vanden Abeele

The opera features not one, but two nurses played by men. Poppea’s nurse, Arnalta, was veteran Dominque Visse, who tended to talk and shout in the middle register, where his voice did not seem to find the appropriate support. Ottavia’s nurse was tenor Marcel Beekman, who was very successful and funny in his portrayal of the old, cynical lady.

Alessandro Fisher, as Lucano, did a great job in a very sensuous duet with Lindsey’s Nerone; among the many “minor” characters I want to mention Claire Debono who, in the small parts of Venus and Athena, came through with a strong presence and a beautiful voice.