Hungarian State Opera delightfully revamps L’incoronazione di Poppea

By Jenny Camilleri, 14 March 2021

If you’re going to recompose a Monteverdi opera with modern instruments, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the one to pick. The original orchestration is lost, so even in mainstream performances decisions need to be made about orchestral colours. Composer Máté Bella’s assignment was altogether more radical. The Hungarian State Opera asked him to rewrite a shortened two-hour version for the Eiffel Art Studios, which opened last year, aimed at young audiences. It’s such fun only fuddy-duddies would disapprove.

Bella decided to leave the recitatives intact, but re-harmonised the accompaniment to the arias for a modern orchestra. He also replaced the recurring instrumental sections, the ritornellos, with his own music, written for a jazz band. The result is a wacky mixture of dry recitative with harpsichord, mellow saxophone sounds and dramatic orchestral onslaughts. It was certainly effective on a small computer screen—even more so as an in-house experience, I would imagine. Especially in the second half, when the audience was invited to sit on stools close to the set.

Thematically, Poppea will presumably remain updatable until the end of time, since the imperial Roman drama is driven by sex and violence. Young women use their sexual attractiveness to climb the social ladder and convince men to commit nefarious deeds on their behalf. Older women without sexual currency can only latch on to a younger woman and hope that her star is on the rise. In this production, directed by András Almási-Tóth, Nerone (Nero) is a mafia capo who is tired of his wife Ottavia and infatuated with Poppea. She plans to graduate from mistress to spouse whatever the cost... as long as other people pay.

They inhabit a world of expensive glitz and excessive taste—heaps of Versace barococo and heavy gold chains. Nerone’s tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, is anything but. He’s a drug-addicted consigliere who gets high on heroine during one of the jazzy ritornellos while Nerone and Poppea get high on each other. That’s just one of the bizarrely amusing scenes taking place under a giant cloud made of plastic balloons. Another one is Seneca’s coerced bathtub suicide, attended by Nerone’s disco-dancing tough guys, acid at the ready to dissolve the evidence.

This extreme lifestyle justifies Bella’s exuberant scoring. The lush orchestral textures, overflowing with arpeggios and pumped up with percussion, go with the over-the-top costumes. There are ironically overly graphic moments, such as the tolling bells and descending chromatic scales sending Seneca to his death. Conductor Gergely Vajda and the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra brought out the psychedelic colours beautifully, while Kornél Fekete-Kovács’s Modern Art Orchestra had me looking forward to the next leisurely jazz interlude. If this had been my first ever Poppea, I’d probably have enjoyed it even more. Hampered by previous experience, there were times when I wished the orchestra were less intrusive vis-à-vis the voices. But mostly I was delightfully surprised – by the prologue, for instance, which was reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s score for The She-Wolf (terrible film, highly evocative music). 

This revamped Poppea would have been even more convincing if the whole cast had been as strong as the two leads. But key characters suffered from uneven singing, especially the unsteady Seneca and the hard-toned Ottavia. The dazzlingly attired allegorical figures were also not consistently on pitch. Eszter Zemlényi, who played Drusilla, was the standout among the supporting roles, her pretty soprano ringing as clear as a bell. Mária Farkasréti as Ottavia’s nurse was an oasis of gravitas amidst all the oversexed hyperactivity, while Bernadett Wiedemann deliciously revved up her plummy vibrato as Poppea’s confidante Arnalta.

Vocally, Bori Keszei and Tibor Szappanos reigned supreme as the murderous couple. Szappanos has the kind of tenor that can project testosterone as well as tenderness – just the thing for a love-sick tyrant. And it’s just as well that he can easily switch from mellifluous wooing to full-on trumpeting, because Bella’s bombastic coronation scene required him to sing as if he were in a Richard Strauss opera. After which Nerone and Poppea shed their heavy golden regalia to bask in freshly wedded bliss during “Pur ti miro”. Bella wisely left the voices unadorned in this final duet, letting the audience enjoy the singing. Soprano Bori Keszei was utterly splendid as Poppea. What can a crime boss do when his mistress sings and moves like that, but get rid of his old bore of an advisor and make sure his ex-wife never sets foot in Rome again?

This performance was filmed before an audience in November 2020 and reviewed from the Hungarian State Opera video stream