L'incoronazione di Poppea - Teatro Real Madrid, 24 May 2010
You don't expect singing of subtlety and elegance from Danielle de Niese and, unsurprisingly, you don't get it here. But you can practically see the steam rising from her squirming, panting Poppea. No-one is going to topple De Niese from her perch as the reigning queen of baroque sluts any time soon. She dominates the stage every time she steps on it.
It's not hard to understand the psychological enslavement of Philippe Jaroussky's goggle-eyed, neurotic Emperor Nero. The opera's defining transaction, the exchange of sex for power and vice versa is horribly clarified. And it's magnified further by director/designer/costumier Pier Luigi Pizzi, who as is his wont lets the visuals do the work that other directors might leave to detailed character direction. Nero is peacock-like and ripe for plucking in a huge feathered overcoat; Poppea slinks around in a succession of clingy, glittering goddess gowns.
Next to this pair, the Ottavia of Anna Bonitatibus and Ottone of Max Emanuel Cencic are positively dowdy, devoid of political or erotic allure. A central revolve houses three austere neo-classical sets, all pillars and colums, and vast mirrors at each side of the stage offer disturbing changes of perspective. It is a beautiful production whose sophisticated visual language challenges the imagination of the audience to interpret, and it has baffled Spanish critics, who seem unsure what to make of something that is neither traditional naturalistic theatre nor avant-garde provocation. But then the work itself, with its fantastical prologue and its comic interludes punctuating the historical narrative, seems inherently unsuited to either. Pier Luigi Pizzi, at 80-ish, still has 'it'.
Monteverdi is well-served by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, raised so high that there is effectively no pit and musicians' heads bob above the stage. Perhaps with an eye to the production's future transfer to La Fenice, the Venice version of the score is employed. There is nothing delicate about his approach, which is characterised by vigorous tempi and bold strokes. Only in the final act does the pace flag a little, and that is in part at least down to the writing.
The singing is variable, with only Anna Bonitatibus delivering the sort of performance that would be worth preserving for posterity. De Niese needs to push her tiny voice into the (frankly not that large) auditorium and the result is often squally, wobbly and loosely adjacent to pitch. Jaroussky sounded strangely prissy, lacking his usual sweetness of tone. Max Emanuel Cencic's voice takes some getting used to - an alto countertenor whose natural speaking voice is a not far distant high tenor, his vocal production seems quite different from the typical countertenor. Antonio Abete's Seneca was more shouted than sung, and the smaller parts were variably taken.
The Madrid audience were notably quiet throughout - and not just in the coughing/whispering sense. Not a single post-aria clap, not a giggle at the (admittedly not that funny) 'humour', not even a sharp intake of breath at any point. Yet come the final whistle, they were more than politely enthusiastic in their applause. Perhaps it was the hot weather, which seemed unaccountably to have found its way into the auditorium.
A little about the Teatro Real - recent refurbishment has left it with palatially spacious public areas. There are plenty of places to sit or wander during the intervals, especially on the second level, and a wide balcony offers amazing views across the beautiful square. Drinks and yummy open sandwiches are served from a number of table bars, and the adjoining shop carries a huge range of CDs.
The auditorium itself leaves something to be desired. More seats are (correctly) classified as 'restricted view' than not, though there is little difference in price. I sat in the stalls, which along with the non-side front rows of the upper levels contains the best seats at a price of around €150. The side boxes, especially the rear rows, have very poor views for comparatively high prices (€95-ish). The very highest level, butaca de paraiso, is a long way above the stage, but if you don't mind looking down on singers' heads rather than into their faces, the rear sides are not bad value at around €25 per seat. There is a detailed and accurate view from seat chart on the Teatro Real site which is worth looking at before buying any tickets.
Interview (in English) with countertenors Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic:
Philippe Jaroussky and Danielle de Niese sing:
Here is the Teatro Real from the outside: