Back in 1978, by all accounts, Zurich Opera’s production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea under Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s musical direction was close to a celestial event. As such, in anticipation of Calixto Bieito’s new production, local papers ran previews to pique our curiosity; reporters and critics received a 65-page programme of interviews and glossy photographs. In short, operagoers were armed well in advance with news that the Romans were coming.

Julie Fuchs (Poppea)
© Monika Rittershaus

Poppea premiered in Venice during the 1643 carnival season. One of the world’s earliest operas, as such, it was also a critical reflection of an era where a culture of moral depravity and intrigue among the nobility was epidemic. Not unexpectedly, Bieito’s new production modernizes that theme, readily picking up questions of corruption, avarice and gross abuses of justice that are not unlike those in the world today. Designer Rebecca Ringst set her stage with an unconventional elliptical back-lit catwalk to make a metaphor, suggesting that ultimately, lives as misguided as these, are apt to lead nowhere. The orchestra pit is set down its middle, an odd bit of staging that somehow works famously. 

At the beginning, as three iconic figures – Fortune, Love and Virtue – argue over who wields the most power, and herald what Monteverdi’s lyricist had as his greatest interest: the protagonists’ involvement in power structures and their corruptibility. Like a player in a Machiavellian nightmare, Emperor Nero disposes of any obstacles that get in his way. Keen to make Poppea his new Empress, he banishes his wife, Octavia; fed up with Seneca’s objections to his behaviour, he forces the elder stateman’s suicide. 

Nahuel Di Pierro (Seneca)
© Monika Rittershaus

Australian countertenor David Hansen truly became Nero, with the virtuoso coloratura the role requires but adding his own handsome portion of physicality and heft. Further, his mastery of enunciation, even in that high range, was simply unparalleled. In his agitation, his voice would often slice into the other musical passages like a knife. You had to shake in your boots (and we did) when he sang, “I’ll rip out the tongue of any who reproach me”. 

Monteverdi’s librettist expounded upon the carnal with imagination, presenting it simply as a given, and weaving the rest of the characters in and out of its arms. In Bieito's production, though, sexuality has unconditional reign. Nero enjoys has excesses and orgies with men and women, nothing constrained by traditional moral behaviour – with the frequency and intensity that would to make a brave man cry. He often tips into brute force, actually shooting one of his male partners at point blank range. 

The extraordinarily gifted Julie Fuchs sang the erotically-charged role of Poppea with terrific conviction throughout. Her vibrant and nuanced soprano carried to the farthest corners of the house. As she toyed with the notion of union with Nero, she freely admitted that “Hope, you continue to beguile my heart”, but it was clear that her heart and ambition to be Empress were more or less synonymous. At the end of the glorious “Pur ti miro” duet, Fuchs reveals her pregnant belly to the audience, which fits the story perfectly. 

Julie Fuchs (Poppea) and David Hansen (Nerone)
© Monika Rittershaus

As Octavia, Nero’s betrayed wife, Stéphanie d'Oustrac gave us a tragic figure whose voice seemed to boil in the throes of her grief. In the trouser role as Poppea’s duped husband, Ottone, the chiselled, lanky Delphine Galou’s vocal strengths made the sense of loss around the betrayal entirely palpable. The loyal Drusilla (the superb Deanna Breiwick) first appeared as a Jayne Mansfield lookalike, but showed herself anything but superficial. On the contrary, she is one of only two characters with any decent moral fibre and she is prepared to go to her death rather than betray the one she loves. As Seneca, Nahuel Di Pierro is also three-dimensional; his rich, bronzy bass wrapped around us like a warm blanket. But then, right after Nero attempts to kill him, Nero and Poppea straddle him, copulating over his wounded chest. 

Deanna Breiwick (Drusilla) and Delphine Galou (Ottone)
© Monika Rittershaus

Unique to the staging, though, was that some 60 members of the audience actually sat upstage behind the singers. A generous use of video, to the left, right and behind those seats was, for the most part, appealing. Ingo Krügler’s simple costumes offset the complexity of personalities, but the angels’ wings at the end – black worn for dead for murdered, white for a nautical death victim – made some of the images seem ripe for coinage. 

Under Ottavio Dantone’s baton, 24 members of the house’s Baroque orchestra, La Scintilla, gave modulated, tightly contained accompaniment. The rich fabric of Monteverdi’s music made one forget that in the end, morality is all but lost and evil triumphs. Poppea as Empress, yes, but Heavens, what then?