“I don’t give a shit for the people or the senate! And Ottavia is a frigid, barren bitch!”
That’s how Nero lets his teacher, the philosopher Seneca, in on his plan to divorce his wife and marry Poppea, the ambitious wife of his friend Ottone.
Opera fans familiar with “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” will recall the Roman emperor, though lecherous, as a more refined conversationalist. What the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris presents is a drastically updated version of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 masterpiece.
“Pop’pea,” the title of the new work, indicates that the music, too, is no longer what it used to be: Monteverdi’s score has been larded with pop ingredients.
Michael Torke, the U.S. composer responsible for the adaptation, is not the first to tamper with the original.
When the opera was dusted off, in the 1960s, after three centuries of neglect, conductors routinely fleshed out the sparsely sketched orchestra parts. Most of the vocal parts, scored almost entirely for high voices, were transposed down to make the male characters more believable.
Recent productions have followed the two surviving scores -- one from Naples, the other from Venice -- more faithfully, replacing the extinct castrati with sopranos and countertenors.
In an interview on the Chatelet’s website, Torke, who is known for a jazzy “post-minimalist” style, says rock and roll is the natural heir of Monteverdi’s simple bass line.
While more or less respecting the older composer’s melodies, he has reworked the accompaniment which then was transformed by the drummer Peter Howard into the idiom of a six-member rock band -- including himself -- in the pit.
The U.K. playwright and director Ian Burton, who rewrote the libretto, has simplified the story by eliminating the gods and most of the minor characters.
The key difference between the old and the new is the vocabulary. Monteverdi’s characters may be cynical, calculating and cruel, yet they’re also courtiers.
In the updated version, they’re crude and vulgar.
Four-letter words abound, and even wise old Seneca’s ruminations about his pupil Nero rarely rise above banalities: “Before the Great Fire,/ Before he murdered his mother,/ Although megalomaniac,/ His intentions were higher!”
This is one of the scenes not found in the original libretto. Another is the finale: After their ecstatic love duet, Nero strangles Poppea. (In reality, he killed his pregnant wife by kicking her in the belly.)
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Pierrick Sorin, the directorial team, have made the transfer of images from miniature sets to huge video screens their speciality. In 2007, they scored a success at the Chatelet with a technically brilliant production of Rossini’s “La Pietra del Paragone.”
In “Pop’pea,” they repeat the trick, placing the characters in landscapes of ice cream, cold cuts and dancing skeletons. It’s the most inspired part of the show.
Among the vocalists, Valerie Gabail, in the title role, is the only professional opera singer. For the others, opera is new territory: Carl Barat (Nero) played guitar in various U.K. rock bands, including the Libertines. Marc Almond, formerly of Soft Cell, (Seneca), Benjamin Biolay (Ottone) and Fredrika Stahl (Ottavia) are rock and pop singers.
The result proves what you’d suspect: Without proper voices, opera, albeit in a diluted form, is a non-starter. Even the extravagant costumes, designed by Nicola Formichetti who also works for Lady Gaga, can’t save the show.
The best that can be hoped for is that this hybrid whets the appetite of pop fans for the real thing.
“Pop’pea,” which is supported by Credit Agricole SA (ACA), is in repertory at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, through June 7. Information: http://www.chatelet-theatre.com or +33-1-4028-2828.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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