Monteverdi – L’incoronazione di Poppea / Schwetzinger Festspiele 1993 (2)

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Humorous countertenors ought to be shot. I don’t mean ‘countertenors who can be funny’ because this includes rather a lot of countertenors who I would in fact not like to see shot. I mean countertenors playing “unattractive/old/ridiculous woman” roles in 1990s productions of early baroque operas who go squawking back and forth between countertenor voice and tenor, who do not sound nice, and who are not actually funny. There are several of these persons in this opera. I am not going to name names.

I don’t mean to say that drag can’t be funny or interesting. Drag can be awesome. But it’s not intrinsically funny or interesting or awesome – you can’t just slap a dress on a dude and call it a day. (I mean, if you’re a dude who just likes to wear dresses, of course you can slap on a dress and call it a day. But we’re talking theater here.) There are plenty of perfectly good reasons to have a man play a female role or a woman a male role. But usually when this happens, there’s a point. It sounds nice, or it works dramatically, or it’s interesting as commentary on some aspect of the work, or a particular person is just amazing in that role, or whatever. But in this production the point is limited to “hey, here’s a female character, but she’s ACTUALLY A MAN! HAHAHA!” Maybe this was funnier in 1642 than it is now. (Having the “nurse” characters sung by men is apparently traditional for this opera.) I can imagine a version of this opera where the humor or commentary provided by these characters is more interesting – but this is not such a production.

The production is in fact fairly simple and straightforward, which I liked. The floor of the set is the top of a metal dome that looks like the very top portion of a globe, with all the countries and borders etched in. As in, these people run the world, or are on top of it – at least for now. Nero and Poppea are provided with a bed, there is a chair/throne that appears or disappears, a space in the floor serves Seneca as a bathtub and Drusilla as a laundry tub, and there is an open space at the back for when Athena comes to have words with Seneca or Cupid swoops in to save Poppea.

Costumes are similarly straightfoward. Nero and the other men get military uniforms in various colors, Ottavia a black dress, Seneca a black toga and shirt (and later a black pair of undies for when he takes his final bath), Drusilla gets a sort of peasant-girl outfit, and Poppea seems to have raided the closet of either Salzburg-Vitellia or Stuttgart-Alcina or both: the result is pink and very, very sheer.

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4 thoughts on “Monteverdi – L’incoronazione di Poppea / Schwetzinger Festspiele 1993 (2)

  1. Dominique Visse is quite effective and occasionally funny in the Arnalta role in the recent Liceu production. But it’s less because he’s a dude than because he makes the vanity and sadness of the character come out.


    1. I’m glad to hear that Visse made the character interesting – I agree that if someone can make a particular role work well both vocally and dramatically, the sex of the performer doesn’t really matter.


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