What’s black and white and red all over?

The 2010 Oslo recording of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of the strangest opera videos I have ever seen.  Besides having an almost complete set of the characteristics that critics pejoratively assign to Regietheatre it also has a very unusual video treatment that goes well beyond quirky camera angles and overly intrusive close-ups.  So the box is being entirely accurate when it states “Based on a performance directed by Ole Anders Tandberg.  Adapted and filmed by Anja Stabell and Stein-Roger Bull”.

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So lets take the production first and talk about Tandberg’s take on Monteverdi’s late masterpiece.  He clearly doesn’t think there is nearly enough sex and violence.  So he sticks a bunch more in.  Added sex for example.  When Nerone and Lucano celebrate after the extremely bloody version of Seneca’s suicide, Lucano fists Nerone.  Or Lucano molesting Seneca’s corpse.  You get the idea.  The violence and blood is even more striking.  There’s a lot of blood.  Literally buckets full every time someone dies and Nerone, Poppea and their entourage are rather fond of playing in it.  To make sure there is enough to play in properly Tandberg not only bumps off Seneca but gives us a veritable orgy of deaths in Act 3.  Nerone pardons Ottone and then shoots him in the back.   Ottavia stabs her nurse and then slits her own throat.  During Pur ti miro all of Nerone’s entourage, basically everybody still alive, is bumped off bloodily.

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Then there’s the interpretive dance.  Various characters do this for inexplicable reasons.  Seneca’s attendants, for example, wrap themselves in a jacket and prance around while trying to persuade him not to top himself.  The chief dancer though is Amore.  Tandberg’s take on this character is a demonic child straight out of a Stephen King movie.  She has a constant evil grin, brandishes a teddy bear and takes delight in every killing; usually by dancing.  I get that this piece is about perverted lust.  It’s one of the things that makes it so remarkable for its time.  Are we now so jaded that we need that forced down our throats?  After all that Alessandro de Marchi’s rearrangement of some of the music as dance tunes seems almost restrained.

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And so to the filming.  Take it as read that all the video director’s bag of tricks is in play here; weird angles, fades, superpositions, close ups.  The real shift though is that the film is post processed to remove almost all the colour.  The effect is like a black and white film with touches of hand colouring; almost always in shades of red for, for example, lips.  The big exception, of course, is the blood which is very red indeed.  I think this filmic intervention is consistent with Tandberg’s on stage approach.  It makes the whole thing even more relentless.  Whether one finds that gripping or, as I did, ultimately tedious is probably a matter of taste.

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Full credit to the cast though for giving the production their best efforts.  Jacek Laszczkowski, playing Nerone, has a lovely voice and does an amazing job of portraying Nerone’s descent from obsessed nutter to batshit insane psychopath.  Amelie Aldenheim is truly creepy as Amore.  There’s some very good stylish singing too from Tim Mead (Ottone), Patricia Bardon (Ottavia) and Giovanni Battista Parodi (Seneca).  The one performer who didn’t really convince me was Brigitte Christensen as Poppea.  Against the madness around her she seems a bit understated and her voice a tad too nineteenth century operatic for this repertoire.

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Technically the disk is fine although there seem to be discrepancies between the listings I have seen and the disk I have.  It’s filmed in HD and there is, or at one point was, a Blu-ray version.  Listings claim both Dolby 5.1 and DTS surround sound but my copy (supplied direct by EuroArts who say that Blu-ray is not currently available) has only PCM stereo which, to be fair, sounds perfectly fine.  And a finally mystery, the title of the work is given as L’incoronatione di Poppea throughout.  Odd.  The booklet has a track listing, a synopsis and a brief essay.  Subtitle options are Italian, English (sometimes oddly archaic), French, German, Chinese and Norwegian.

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I really can’t see this as anyone’s first choice of a recording for this piece given its general outthereness but it is interesting as an example of how far one might go in reinterpreting an opera for video.  First timers or the more conservative are probably going to prefer either  Robert Carsen’s engaging Glyndebourne production with Danielle deNiese’s super sexy Poppea or  David Alden’s Barcelona production with Miah Persson which is pretty good and is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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