L’Incoronazione di Poppea

The Theater an der Wien concludes its Monteverdi trilogy with this bloody tale of desire

Opera is an exotic and irrational entertainment,” observed Samuel Johnson two centuries ago. But still today, opera lovers and detractors would likely concur – the latter considering opera a bunch of ludicrous stories exacerbated by excruciating screeching; the former rhapsodizing about glorious voices transporting you to other worlds. Either way, opera is an indulgence unlike any other, capable of titillating even skeptics through sheer spectacle.

Despite opening its doors in 1801, the Theater an der Wien has been Vienna’s self-professed “new” opera house for the last decade, showing stunning productions of works spanning four centuries, from just this side of the Renaissance to operas whose ink (or toner) is still wet.

With six performances this month of The Coronation of Poppea, the theater is concluding its Claudio Monteverdi trilogy of his surviving operas – Orfeo, Return of Ulysses and Coronation.

Monteverdi holds a special place in the annals of music. Orfeo, written in 1607, is often considered the “first” opera, despite a few earlier works leaning in that direction.

The power of lust

The Coronation of Poppea premiered in 1643 during the Venice carnival, just six years after the world’s first public opera house had opened there. Perhaps prompted by popular demand, Poppea was considered novel for presenting real historical characters, not mythical figures. Emperor Nero’s nastiness and his mistress Poppea’s scheming were well known to the theatergoer: several Roman historians, including Tacitus and Suetonius (Wikipedia of the day), had described their love affair.

Notwithstanding 372 intervening years, it’s still a story our modern eyes, ears and sensibilities can follow. Although Monteverdi was 75 when composing his last opera, he was still sensitive to the nuances of erotic urges, writing music to match. Nero and Poppea enter the stage deep in conversation about the previous night’s bedroom activities. And thus the story progresses, desire leading the way.

This will be the second production of Poppea at Theater an der Wien in five years. The most memorable part of the 2010 staging was a huge red bedspread – or was it blood? – covering the entire set. This time, Claus Guth is directing. Based on his remarkable non-religious dramatization of Handel’s Messiah in 2009, expect something less blatant to portray the ambivalence of passion.

Alex Penda (photo: Mat Hennek)
Alex Penda // photo: Mat Hennek

Poppea will be sung by Alex Penda. Known for her performances of ardent ladies, we can anticipate fireworks. Nero, her coveted husband-to-be, will be countertenor Valer Sabadus: young (not quite 30), handsome and powerful. Jean- Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus will accompany. In the HIP scene (“historically informed performance,” i.e. modern efforts to re-create a period sound), the energetic Spinosi is proudly an enfant terrible.

Most astonishing about Poppea is its lack of moralistic preaching: in the end evil rules, not good. The couple who desire each other at any cost – including the deaths of Nero’s mother, tutor and ex-wife – finish the opera with a rapturous love duet.

Irrational, yes, but that’s what’s intriguing about opera.

Through Oct. 23
Theater an der Wien
6., Linke Wienzeile 6

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Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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