Klaus Michael Grüber’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, recorded at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2000, is both stylish and stylised. The stage and costume designs, by Gilles Aillaud and Rudy Sabounghi, are extremely elegant and, at times, very beautiful. The Seneca scenes at the beginning of Act 2, set in a sort of lemon grove, are especially effective as ai the use of painterly backdrops looking like Greek vase paintings reinterpreted by a fauviste. The director complements the designs with a somewhat formalised acting style that fits rather well. He also makes some changes to the narrative to tighten up the drama, dispensing with Ottavia’s nurse and ending with Pur tí miro, rather than Poppea’s coronation. Coupled with excellent acting performances it’s a straightforward but effective way to tell the story.
Philippe Boesmans’ opera Julie; libretto by Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischolberger after Früken Julie by August Strindberg, is unremittingly bleak. In fact, if it lasted much longer than its 75 minutes I could well imagine audience members cutting their throats long before the title character. That said, it’s pretty compelling stuff. It’s a tight drama about a young aristocratic woman kicking against the constraints of her privileged life aided and abetted by her father’s rather spineless valet Jean; a suitable occupation as he is one of nature’s lackeys. The only likeable character is Jean’s young fiancée Kristin, a cook in the household. Buried in this simple melodramatic plot of lust, betrayal and suicide are all kinds of ideas about heredity, social class and behaviour. Broadly speaking the message is “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” and woe betide you if your plebeian mother married above herself.
Here’s another fine example of how well Handel’s oratorios can work when staged. It’s a recording of Hercules made at Paris’ Palais Garnier in 2004. The staging is by Luc Bondy and William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are joined by a youngish cast of extremely good singers. It’s compelling stuff. I think what, for me, makes the oratorios much more interesting than most of Handel’s opera seria is structural. The operas tend to alternate recit and da capo aria with maybe a duet or chorus to close an act but they are pretty predictable. In the oratorios Handel makes much more use of ensembles and the chorus and, for me, that’s vastly preferable.