Claudio Monteverdi - Orpheus/Odysseus/Poppea
Komische Oper, Berlin - 2014
André de Ridder, Barrie Kosky, Dominik Köninger, Julia Novikova, Peter Renz, Günter Papendell, Ezgi Kutlu, Tansel Akzeybek, Brigitte Geller, Roger Smeets, Helene Schneiderman
Arthaus Musk - Blu-ray
Barrie Kosky's work is becoming more widely known in the UK from colourful, fresh and not entirely controversy-free productions of mainly Baroque opera at the ENO (Rameau's Castor and Pollux), Glyndebourne (Handel's Saul) and Edinburgh (Mozart's The Magic Flute), but the Australian director is also the artistic director at the Komische Oper in Berlin, the city's German language opera company. You can expect then that his Monteverdi Trilogy (L'Orfeo, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea the composer's only existing complete operas) is going to be very different from any other versions of some of opera's earliest and greatest compositions. You don't know the half of it...
It's the Komische, so even Monteverdi is subjected to the German language treatment. That might sound strange to the ears were the works performed in an historically-informed way on period instruments, but remarkably the musical interpretation is just as "translated" here. While the melodic line and continuo is followed in as far as Monteverdi variously scored it for these works with theorbo and bass viol, Elena Kats-Chemin has introduced new instrumentation for all three works, including an accordion, a banjo and an electric guitar as well as a range of exotic instruments like the djoza from Iran, a West African kora (bridge-harp) and a Syrian oud (lute).
The familiar melodies and rhythmic structure is there, but less rigidly adhered to, blending into a much richer texture of plucked and hammered sounds that actually give a real kick to the arrangements. It's not just the colour of the instruments that is used either, but the melody can stray into a tango, into German jazz, Slavic folk, klezmer or ragtime swing. It might sound outrageous, but it gets across the wide dynamic of the tones within and across these works and is always appropriate to the context. What is also fascinating is hearing those instruments play baroque music and discovering the connections the various styles have with one another. It's as if they can all be ultimately traced back to Monteverdi, and I suppose in a way they can.
Needless to say, Barrie Kosky revels in the opportunities to match the colour and playful nature of the music with vividly bright, colourful productions that are inventive in situation on a busy stage that is usually a riot of dance and movement. Musically and in terms of staging, reflecting the director's concept of the loss and ultimate destruction of the Arcadian ideal across the three works, the trilogy is at its most elaborate in Orpheus (L'Orfeo). This would be appropriate for a work that spans such a wide range of human experiences and emotions, from joyful celebration to mournful despair and the determination of Orpheus not to be defeated by the cruel war constantly waged between the Gods subjecting mankind to the whims of Time, Love, Fate and Chance.
Kosky's production then strongly marks the contrast between Paradise and Hell, illustrating the endeavours of Orpheus and the power of human art and ingenuity to celebrate love and beauty in the face of outrageous fortune. The stage is filled with movement, with dancers and life-size puppets, but it works in a complementary way with the nature of the subject and with the unconventional musical interpretation conducted here by André de Ridder. As the most adventurous of the three stagings, it works marvellously, allowing the German language performance to fit in well with the celebration of life in all its richness and colour. The singing performances by Dominik Köninger as Orpheus, Julia Novikova as Eurydice and Peter Renz as Amor, no doubt help make that work as well with the sheer lyrical beauty of the voices.
The rather more austere staging for Odysseus (Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria) doesn't significantly alter the impact that is achieved by the richness of the work itself. Accordingly, the music has the same kind of musical reinterpretation but with a different colour from that of Orpheus. Turkish melodies and rhythms infuse Poppea's lament and other imaginative musical flourishes on a grand piano are inserted in those Monteverdean short bursts of melody in the middle of recitative. The scene of the three suitors characterises their claims with a tango rhythm or a burst of a Habanera. Again without destroying the composer's structure, this is very much in the spirit of improvisation and interpretation that are a vital element to the make-up of Monteverdi's operas, the singing voices taking up the main expression of emotions. Ezgi Kutlu in particular impresses here as Poppea, but Günter Papendell's Odysseus and Tansel Akzeybek's Telemachus are also very strong.
In terms of the advancing the concept of the staging, one of the main factors that establishes the tone of the work is of course the Prelude. In Odysseus, Time, Fortune and Love make fools of the activities of men and the purpose of Odysseus. The expedition to Troy and the war that ensued has led to Odysseus blown off course for 20 years. Arcadia has been lost, Odysseus is wandering, longing for a return to peace in his homeland, with his family and loved ones, and it is also causing Penelope great torment. The 'patria' here then is nothing more then than the green, green grass of home, a mostly bare platform with the orchestra behind the performers. The period is kind of late-60s/early-70s, the suitors looking particularly sleazy as if they've just spilled out of a bar hoping to pick up a wealthy widow, but the tone at the same time colourfully evokes nostalgia for old-fashioned ways.
The set is also minimally dressed for Poppea (L'Incoronazione di Poppea), but this is more than compensated for by the colour, movement and stage directions that extend out beyond the orchestra pit on a wide platform. Disappointingly however, having got quite used to it in the other two works, the musical reinterpretation is less evident here, despite L'incoronazione di Poppea being a work that has a wide range of emotional colour and variety of situation. A little bit of electric guitar makes fitful appearances, and banjos are used to bring a little more of an edge to the basso continuo. Somehow however, despite the fact that great care has been take to establish a distinct sound world to each of the works, it isn't until quite late in the piece that the instrumentation finds the kind of rhythmic pulse that should drive the work.
Barrie Kosky however is not short of ways to use the singers, dancers and supernumerary sprites to push the expressions of all the violent and lustful passions in Poppea into the movement and exhibition of the body. There is a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity here, mostly male, none of which is the least bit erotic. Amor - a vital character to all three works (sung in each by Peter Renz) - is a constant presence here, but again taking its lead from the prelude, Love might be dominant, but Virtue has been defeated and Arcadia destroyed. Poppea takes place consequently on the side of a volcano, grey, with large boulders littering the landscape. The contrast between Nero and Poppea's violent love and the monstrousness of their actions towards others is depicted in all its horror, and matched by the intense singing. All of the performers are simply outstanding here, but I particularly liked Helene Schneiderman's unrepentantly vengeful Octavia.
The quality of the visual aspect of each of the Blu-ray discs is fine, but there is a little bit of haziness to the image with some minor blurring in movement that is not as clinically sharp as most HD releases. On Orpheus and Odysseus, there is a kind of yellowish tint with gives a warmer tone. These characteristics are less evident on Poppea, which also seems sharper. The singing sounds a little amplified which might be down to the use of radio mics, although they are not obviously worn by the performers, and the mixing is not quite as bright as you might find on recordings of baroque music. It's warmly toned if you like, and comes over well on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM stereo mixes, but best of all on headphones. Subtitles are in German, English, French and Turkish. There are no extra feaures on the discs, but there are synopses and a great deal of information on the production in the large booklet that comes with the box set.