For those unfamiliar with Claudio Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea, it may be considered the dawn of what we consider opera history, but in so many ways it feels more modern than the moralizing of the 19th or 20th century art or the extolling of pure aesthetic form of the 18th. Monteverdi deals with actual historical figures, shows them in their worst light, and lets them win the day – aesthetically – and without apology. Should historical rumor be correct, the loving pair whose final “Pur ti miro” is one of the most sublime musical love duets of the ages, ends with Nerone killing his pregnant Poppea by kicking her to death, murdering his already exiled ex-wife, Ottavia, and not shedding a single tear for the scads of other corpses that lay in his wake, including his own mother. Poppea is no virtuous heroine either – she cold-heartedly plots to ascend the throne, and instigates against Seneca, ultimately forcing him to commit suicide to free her path. The brilliance of the opera, and this production, is that we the audience – even in full knowledge of all of this – are still legitimately moved to tears by the closing duet. Love, as Monteverdi reminds us at the beginning, still wins the day, even when it is grotesquely destructive.

Camilo Mejía Cortés (dancer), Kate Lindsey (Nerone) and Slávka Zámečníková (Poppea)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Jan Lauwers’ new production at the Wiener Staatsoper, which debuted at the 2018 Salzburg Festival, takes an abstract approach set in no particular time or place. In German the expression “über Leichen gehen” suits both staging and design – naked, intertwined bodies are literally stepped across all evening and a mixture of violence, dancing and eroticism reign. The costumes (Lemm & Barkey) range from glitzy dresses to cotton tunics to fantastical headpieces and serve to create recognizable characters and their counterparts – over a dozen dancers from Lauwers’ Needcompany. The dancers fill multiple functions, sometimes doubling, often as abused puppets of the protagonists. They depict, physically, underlying emotion and beauty through visible discomfort; throughout the three hours, one is always spinning, clockwise, on a dais in the middle of the stage. One of the more gripping scenes involves Poppea asleep in the middle of a tableau vivant of dancing bodies, holding stylized positions for much longer than should be humanly possible. 

Kate Lindsey (Nerone)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

What ultimately does it for me (or not) with productions are the voices, and this one has them in spades. I would burn down Rome to listen to Kate Lindsey sing the phone book, and her vocal and physical approach to Nerone is so completely consummate that I do not know if I ever need to hear a countertenor in the role again. Plus, the chemistry of two women on stage portraying this degree of erotic chemistry is very modern indeed; I can almost hear pearls being clutched! Lindsey’s voice is luminous, effortlessly regulated in every register, and intertwined magically with the gleaming soprano of Slávka Zámečníková, a very special new jewel in the Staatsoper ensemble who is every inch a star. Though it is nearly impossible to outshine Lindsey, Zámečníková’s voice has that full, yet effortless quality for which sopranos would sell their souls, and a timbre of rare beauty. I cannot wait to hear more from her, and the same goes for much of the rest of the cast, which was as strong as one would expect from a world class house. Christina Bock as the jilted Ottavia, Isabel Signoret as Amore and Josh Lovell in a number of smaller roles were vocal standouts, and Sir Willard White a regal Seneca.

Sir Willard White (Seneca)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

And let’s hear it for Concentus Musicus Wien, who brought the house down and would have made their late founder, Nikolaus Harnoncourt more than proud. Elevated from the pit and reinforced in numbers, they – under Pablo Heras-Casado’s capable baton – breathed authenticity and life into Monteverdi’s sparse score with authority. They have fabulous improvisers in their ensemble who understand Baroque style and have the ability to dance Monteverdi's ritornelli and sinfonia into a hall the size of the modern Staatsoper. This has been too long in coming. Congratulations to house director Bogdan Roščić for another successfully tailored import. Poppea is an absolute must-see.