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Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) wrote the sensual love story L’incoronazione di Poppea, one of the most remarkable of all operas, just before his death. It was the first opera to be based on historical events rather than myth, legend or fiction (as had been the custom during the Renaissance). Like his contemporary, William Shakespeare, Monteverdi portrayed credible characters driven by human failings. To achieve this, he developed, among other things, the seconda pratica, where the music was pared down and guided by the libretto. The story and the emotions came to the fore.
Operas are about the meaning of love and life, and also very much about the meaning of death. In L’incoronazione di Poppea, Monteverdi presented a highly personal view of this principle. Although the libretto was inspired by historical figures and events, in the opera, horrible reality fades into the background to make way for sensual passion and elated triumph in a society that has lost sight of morality, where virtue is punished and avarice rewarded with the apparent triumph of love. The libretto, written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, tells how Poppea uses everything in her power to ascend to the throne and become the wife of Emperor Nerone. Empress Ottavia is deceived and pushed aside; Poppea urges Nerone to force Seneca to commit suicide; Ottone is banished after the attempted murder of Poppea; and Ottavia is put at the mercy of the sea when the conspiracy to murder Poppea is exposed. The story ends with Poppea’s coronation as Nerone’s empress. Everything yields to Poppea’s lust for the throne.

History showed us the appalling sequel. Nero was no beginner as a murderous ruler. He had already killed his mother. And not long after Poppaea was crowned, Nero kicked her in the stomach and killed the child she was carrying, after which Poppaea died from her injuries. Nero’s fate was a forced suicide and Otho, whom Nero had banished, took power not long afterwards.

Monteverdi holds a mirror up to his contemporaries in the form of an immoral story about tyranny and intrigue, concealed behind the most beautiful forms of Baroque music. He staged a tale that could only be set in a degenerate society, not in a civilized one. In Jan Lauwers’s interpretation, the mirror has become reality. At a time when excess and identity crises have gained the upper hand, a time when just about everything has become accessible, reason has been lost. Since the Enlightenment – the Age of Reason – God has been declared dead; the gods have lost their status.
Jan Lauwers, who founded Needcompany together with Grace Ellen Barkey more than 30 years ago, is internationally renowned for his auteur theatre work. He is now transferring his unique approach to opera, in which text, movement, visual art and music are each given an autonomous role. In Lauwers’s setting for L’incoronazione di Poppea, the gods do penance like cripples and the protagonists literally walk on the bodies of their sins, their deeds, their killing. The obsession with power, intrigue, cruelty, violence and manipulation triumphs on a background full of Baroque beauty.
The collaboration between Jan Lauwers & Needcompany and William Christie & Les Arts Florissants is based on a central focus on the human body and the presence of the singers. For years, Baroque specialist William Christie has been familiar with L’incoronazione di Poppea. ‘By showing the triumph of cynicism and evil’, Christie says, ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea reflects the contradictions and the fragility of the human soul in a disturbing yet fascinating fashion. To me, the emotion springs directly from Monteverdi’s score. To convey it to today’s audiences, our first concern is to respect the music as it was written by the composer.’

Elke Janssens

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