Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Whatever else you can say about a Kosky anything, it is certainly a Kosky something, and this Poppea, in Sydney after a run through Vienna, Berlin and Edinburgh, is unashamedly a Kosky and a good one too.

I don't worship unreservedly at the altar of Kosky, with my exposure mostly limited to opera productions (Nabucco, Dutchman) and more recently STC's Lost Echo, distracted by what seems to me to be the barely contained precept that nothing succeeds like excess and Kosky's cri de coeur from the (small g) ghettos, Jewish, gay, antipodean, and I share 2 of them, that "I AM".

Accepting that the foundation of good art is to (cliche warning) shine light on the human condition, then Kosky's Poppea has a lot going for it with Monteverdi's cast of rampant egos and Moneteverdi's justly stunning score creating the perfect mould for Kosky to shape, and shape it he does. The contrapuntal use of Cole Porter seems to be what most everyone ends up talking about, and yet while I found it fun at first ultimately it wasn't the shocking or liberating device I expected. If anything were to shock I think the Monteverdi music itself is all the relief needed for the brutality of the staging, in fact probably more so.

Set in what at first glance looked like a cramped space under the Opera House, which is where we were, a cramped space under the Opera House, on the awkward Drama Theatre stage which played up the cabaret aspects of the production but hardly did it real justice, and the lighting I found coarse, as things moved along it occurred to me that in fact we could be seeing this decadent and grotesque unravelling of any residual semblence of self-control played out in the excavated ruins of the Nero residence itself, the Domus Aurea, now an underground descent into a past of opulence and self-indulgence and where once were marble, mozaics and enough gold for even Norman May to shut up.

That is the octagonal room, now a vast empty space with blunt openings to otherness, like grottos as they were when the Romans fell, literally, upon them, spawning the very word grotesque.

The other thing you notice as you adapt to the set is the prominence Barrie Kosky takes, not inapporopriately, but certainly a very obvious presence, facing the audience as it settles, arm over the divider (what is the word for that), relaxed, engaging, and interested, and a single spot on himself and the keyboard for the rest of the night as he drives the whole thing along.

The casting was magnificent and completely at ease with what must have been a Kosky big ask, an all singing, all choreographed, all genre descent into madness. It is quite frankly evil at work, the evil of the endless pursuit of gratification at everyone's expense, including the self, as must be the case. From Barbara Spitz's sequined and blinged Carlotta drag queen love-as-illusion Amor, rasping her way through the classics, to Martin Niedermair's beautiful alto tenor Ottone someway just short of castrato at times, and the rivetting fragile but determined antelope-in-the-spotlight like Ottavia of Beatrice Frey, whose one masterfully sustained high note, beaming out for what seemed like a minute (with a slight short waver some way near the end only adding to her fragility) was alone worth the ticket price. Florian Carove's naked Seneca was an illuminating contrast in stillness and acceptance and Ruth Brauer-Kvam's Drusilla a frenetic exercise in desperateness and survival. At the core of this filth, and I can think of only one thing left to startle us more, and it's not fit for print, entwined around their own lusts, were the sadomasochistic duo of Kyrre Kvam's Nero, a strangling animal who met his match in the equally animal Poppea of Melita Jurisic.

Their final tableaux of completion was genius, nothing except inevitable self destruction in store for them, a smug sordid achievement itself the very opposite of love, the hate of the ego now holding them only temporarily in the same orbit, repulsion already born.

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