The small matter of renovating its Unter den Linden home has meant that the Staatsoper in Berlin, by necessity, has come rather late to the Monteverdi anniversary party. Nevertheless, its new production of L'incoronazione di Poppea opened at the weekend hot on the heels of its new Hänsel und Gretel. By this third performance, it had moved on to its second scheduled Poppea in the shape of Roberta Mameli – Anna Prohaska had been the first.

Max Emanuel Cenčić (Nerone) and Anna Prohaska (Poppea) © Bernd Uhlig
Max Emanuel Cenčić (Nerone) and Anna Prohaska (Poppea)
© Bernd Uhlig

The Akademie für alte Musik, Berlin took up residence in the pit to add lavishly and languidly elaborated flesh to Monteverdi & Co’s skeleton score. Andrea Marchiol and the conductor Diego Fasolis had even devised a new edition, which had been expanded to include various additional bits and bobs from a handful of other composers.

Lavishness on stage, however, was largely restricted to Julia Rösler’s costumes: baroque-ish with a modern twist is nothing new, but it was here executed with considerable flair. Wide-load farthingales, French-maid aprons and dandyish ruffs – Seneca’s outfit seemed designed to undermine the gravitas of his pronouncements – mixed with slinky silk and satin for Poppea and leather for Xavier Sabata’s unusually forceful, if conventionally ineffectual, Ottone.

Jens Kilian’s set offered a large off-gold surface that curved up into the horizontal at the back. It was all strikingly illuminated by Olaf Freese and Irene Selka: their ever-shifting lighting went some way to bringing variety to a staging that essentially spent three hours using the same empty space.

Max Emanuel Cenčić (Nerone) and Franz-Josef Selig (Seneca) © Bernd Uhlig
Max Emanuel Cenčić (Nerone) and Franz-Josef Selig (Seneca)
© Bernd Uhlig

It offered no bed to lounge on; there was no chair, either to sit on or throw – all Ottone could do to express his frustration was throw himself to the floor or kick the back curve. Having eschewed props, the director, Eva-Maria Höckmayr, instead filled the stage with the players, who stood around as action that didn’t directly involve them unfolded – sometimes watching, sometimes not. Occasionally they would come to the front of the stage as one, as if passive observation at times could no longer remain an option. A revolve became an increasingly prominent feature during the second half.

The central relationship of the opera, the driver of the plot, was presented as more complex than usual: Poppea and Nerone were often apart, drawing together only slowly, and several other players were thrown in to complicate the sexual mix. Poppea’s own apparent triumph, too, was tellingly undercut and questioned. But while there were some fascinating points raised, it was arguably at the expense of communicating the full erotic charge that should exist between these two.

Mameli’s Poppea was nonetheless compelling, a slow whirl of winding legs and languid glances on the one hand, but a fully realised, complex character on the other. She sang beautifully, too, her clear soprano beguiling and commanding by turns. Max Emanuel Cenčić was less fully in command of his notes, the quality of the voice becoming compromised higher up in the range, but he sang with sensitivity and intelligence, and likewise presented a character of complex, contradictory motivations.

Katharina Kammerloher (Ottavia), Max Emanuel Cenčić, Gyula Orendt (Lucano), Xavier Sabata (Ottone) © Bernd Uhlig
Katharina Kammerloher (Ottavia), Max Emanuel Cenčić, Gyula Orendt (Lucano), Xavier Sabata (Ottone)
© Bernd Uhlig

Sabata’s Ottone didn’t seem quite able to offer the vocal power to match his visceral, almost animalistic characterisation, though, and Katharina Kammerloher didn’t make the sort of impression she should have done as Ottavia, at least not until her “A Dio, Roma!”, helped at the start by some striking lighting effects. Franz-Josef Selig brought imposing resonance to Seneca and both Evelin Novak and Gyula Orendt were impressive, respectively, as Drusilla and Liberto/Lucano. Mark Milhofer’s gently reedy tenor and naturally communicative stage presence, however, arguably made Arnalta’s Act 3 scene the highpoint of the evening. By contrast, the veteran Jochen Kowalski’s Nutrice, the voice shot to pieces, was not really up to the job.

Fasolis’ conducting revelled in lightness and intertwining filigree but could have done more to create a compelling sense of drama. So too could Höckmayr’s production, a handsome, often striking staging, but one in which the intellectual seemed often to neutralize the sensual.