Back a bit - upon my very first encounter with L'Incoronazione di Poppea, I thought "Virtù and Fortuna having a cat fight over humanity? How very Machiavelli." Which basically sold the whole thing for me right there. Problem was, I never got far beyond Act I on recordings, since I kept skipping back to Ottone's serenade or whatever it is, the bit where he goes "Come out onto the balcony, Poppea". Has me bawling my little eyes out every time, and last night at the Amsterdam Muziektheater was no different, even if Bejun Mehta's voice can take some getting used to. If it was indeed Wagner who started the whole darkening-the-auditorium thing, I'll have to big him up for that, cause I can't "cry pretty", as Oprah calls it, and I hate to distract people with fugly grimacing when they should be focusing on a truly monumental piece of music theatre.
Anyway, last night was the first time I gave all three and a half hours (four and a half with intermissions) of Monteverdi's magnum opus my full and undivided attention, and it bowled me clean over. It's all so tense, and so intense. Even the levity of the interludes tends to heighten, rather than defuse the tension, by virtue of its jarring mood dissonance. Just think of the happy little pastoral duet that follows Seneca's stoic (ha!) acceptance of his death sentence. The characterisation in general is something I just can't get over, either. Everybody's flawed - some very deeply - ranging from unthinking youthful callousness (the little valet) or simple vanity (Arnalta; Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro deserves special mention, here - I love me a promising haute-contre) to full-on careening psychosis (Nero). I'm a big fan of Busenello's take on Ottone, ever shafted by Fate & librettists across the centuries. He doesn't just suffer, he manipulates Drusilla, and he feels horrible about it. Drusilla in turn latches onto the rebounding Ottone with a degree of desperate self-delusion that just about broke my heart. Also, I hadn't checked the cast list properly, so I had another "Oooooh, it's Anna Maria Panzarella!" moment at this point.
The only thing that didn't ring true to me in terms of characterisation was Ottavia's final lament. We've just seen her blackmail Ottone (poor bugger) into attempted murder, threatening to accuse him of rape if he wouldn't, and now we're supposed to feel sorry for her when she claims to be "innocent"? Pfff. Dammi una pausa*. But apart from that, it's tons and tons of intoxicating lyricism undercut by prosaic, even sardonic commentary by the "commoners". The range of human emotion, truism and truth it manages to cover that way - it's like Shakespeare that comes with its own soundtrack. It's epic, in more than one sense. It's late Renaissance Brecht. With tons of gender bent way out of shape, and attendant oodles of what is known over at TVtropes.org as "Ho yay". This particular revival has an exceptionally high number of really attractive members of both sexes, too. I'm still wondering what the bit between Lucano and Nero in Act 2 was supposed to be about, but Anders Dahlin is cute as a button, and we've already covered Ms Ernman. She needs to seriously rein in those facial expressions, but boy, such a lovely dark sound! And, you know, muscular Nordic blonde. Boo yah.
So, yeah. Ballo dell'Ingrate/Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Ulisse next, in about two weeks. Bring 'em on.
* Bad Italian for "gimme a break", in case anyone was wondering.