Love conquers all: so Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea seems to teach, and so Iván Fischer and Marco Gandini’s new production echoes, in the second installment of Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s venture through Monteverdi’s operas. Performed by a well-rounded cast that made it a great delight to re-enter the concert hall after over a year of absence, this was an entertaining romp of a staging – though one that also proved frustratingly tentative in its engagement with the opera’s themes.

Silvia Frigato (Venere) and Jakob Geppert (Amore)
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa

Much of the production is commendable. Poppea is, in many ways, a clear triumph of Fischer’s staging experience and his incredible work with the BFO. The production places the opera in a contemporary setting, its efficient, straightforward storytelling delivering generally well-acted characters and a smooth flow of stage action. Andrea Tocchio’s minimalist sets create a vivid atmosphere of stark glamour, making the best of the concert hall’s limits, while Anna Biagiotti’s costumes are sleek and effective (and in the case of Poppea’s golden gown, truly awe-inspiring). The musicians double seamlessly as characters of their own, used almost like a Greek chorus as they listen to Nutrice’s monologue about womanhood, then shuffle out after her, miming an old woman, or march onstage goose-stepping when Nerone calls forth his subjects to adore his new empress. Amore moving characters on and off the stage is an inspired touch, making the divine influence on mortals’ lives a palpable aspect of the opera beyond its allegorical framing.

Reginald Mobley (Ottone), Jeanine De Bique (Poppea) and Stuart Patterson (Arnalta)
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa

Where the production founders is in its portrayal of power... or rather, the lack of thereof. The terror of Nerone’s tyranny, or indeed his own capricious madness doesn’t make itself felt. Valer Sabadus portrays the emperor as lusty and love-struck, but without much dangerous edge or malice. This Rome feels like a playground of a young rake, rather than a state festering with fear and violence that leaves its bloody mark on all characters and relationships. The intimate, dreamy atmosphere of “Pur ti miro”, with Amore ferrying the triumphant couple away, is almost too jarringly soft, too fairytale-like an ending. Love conquers, but the human price of this ruthless conquest feels frustratingly like an afterthought.

Such unevenness was little felt in the musical performances. As dynamic in their playing as in their constant motion around the stage, the Budapest Festival Orchestra gave a ravishing account of Monteverdi’s score, their performance both lively and enchanting. Not so much at the helm as prowling on the sidelines along with his musicians, Iván Fischer kept things masterfully in check.

Jeanine De Bique (Poppea) and Valer Sabadus (Nerone)
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa

In the titular role, Jeanine De Bique’s Poppea was a delight. Her magnetic presence and gleaming, full-toned soprano made it no wonder that her Poppea would be a favourite of the gods who could only emerge triumphant in the end. She was ideally matched in timbre with Sabadus, their voices blending beautifully in their duets. Sabadus’ tone was fittingly imperial, and his voice had an attractive warmth to it, although his singing was occasionally muddled by unclear diction. Luciana Mancini gave strong performances in the roles of La Virtù and Ottavia, proving a revelation in the latter, embodying the self-contradictory nature of the scorned empress perfectly: heartrending in her laments, and just as vicious as Poppea in seeking revenge against her rival. 

Stuart Patterson (Nutrice)
© Bálint Hirling, Müpa

The philosopher Seneca was allowed little dignity by the staging, but regained all authority through Gianluca Buratto’s silky, booming bass and sensitive singing. Reginald Mobley’s dulcet-toned Ottone was a pleasure to hear, and perfectly paired with Núria Rial, whose silvery soprano made for a delightful Drusilla. Stuart Patterson was hilarious in the double roles of Arnalta and Nutrice without ever veering turning either character into too much of a caricature. Across the minor roles, soprano Silvia Frigato, baritone Peter Harvey and tenors Thomas Walker and Francisco Fernández-Rueda all excelled, Walker shining in Lucano’s sensual duet with Nerone. Rounding off the cast with the somewhat unexpected choice of a treble as Amore and Valletto was Jakob Geppert, whose clear, bright soprano felt a touch too thin at times, but nevertheless gave an accomplished and highly comedic performance. Though not a landmark Poppea, this was a charming performance, well-worth hearing.