Artistic director Jonathan Mills has built his inaugural program for the Edinburgh Festival around the 400th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo.” Using this formative opera as an example, he has sought out work of similar artistic daring, whether it be in a modern treatment of Greek myth or the innovative pairing of music and theater. In every respect, Barrie Kosky’s “Poppea,” first seen at the Vienna Schauspielhaus in 2003, seems tailor-made for Mills’ purposes.
Pitched at a theater (rather than opera) audience, “Poppea” is a sexually frank reworking of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” incorporating songs of Cole Porter and a dissolute jazz age setting. The critic who called it “group sex of the genres” hit the nail on the head.
If the blending of Monteverdi and Porter sounds improbable, Kosky doesn’t make it seem so. Leading his four-strong band on piano, the helmer himself provides the musical settings that straddle the centuries.
He has said the “sarcasm and melancholia” of Porter’s songs are “virtually the same world” as Monteverdi’s text, but, to prove his point, he must find a bridge between their two musical arenas. The result is a score that puts tango rhythms into Monteverdi and baroque stylings into Porter, fluidly merging 400 years of musical history in a way that’s surprisingly seamless.
Kosky uses Porter’s songs in the same way Shakespeare uses soliloquies. At points of greatest tension, the characters snap out of the Monteverdi, which they sing in German, and launch into English-language renditions of “In the Still of the Night,” “Night and Day” or “It’s De-Lovely.”
On paper, it sounds preposterous. In practice, it’s as if the dramatic moment has been frozen and the characters allowed to explore their heightened emotions.
For a non-operagoing audience, the Porter songs help make Monteverdi accessible. For purists, there’s enough honesty in the staging, beauty in the singing and faithfulness to the original to provide satisfaction. It’s true the actors scream, growl and stutter in a way a trained singer would never countenance, but they also treat the score with respect.
Although stripped of secondary characters and a chorus, the story remains intact: the adulterous romance between Poppea (Melita Jurisic) and the emperor Nero (Kyrre Kvam) and the foiled plot to murder Poppea by the aggrieved Ottone (Martin Niedermair) and Drusilla (Ruth Brauer-Kvam).
Kosky brings an air of debauchery. The characters’ sexual passions seem to control them, offering little pleasure, just a dark compulsion that leads them into a dream-like state of lust. Niedermair’s Ottone looks most obviously intoxicated as he totters about the stage, but it’s as if everyone has lost control of their rational selves.
There are images of masturbation and of sadomasochistic violence; Poppea’s diaphanous dress leaves nothing to the imagination, and by the finale, there’s blood everywhere.
“Anything Goes” is the number that most fits the mood of licentiousness (and gets a laugh in the process), but it is often the sweetest of Porter’s songs — “So in Love,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” or “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” — that seem to express the characters’ desperation.
If it is not a piece of drama as a regular theatergoer would recognize it, neither is this “Poppea” an opera in the conventional sense. In his willingness to blur boundaries, Kosky opens doors — whether to popular music of the early 20th century or the radical new forms of the early 17th — in a way that can only be refreshing.