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.
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.