The development of opera in its first 150 years was a refinement of the melodic line and the bringing together of evermore complex vocal groups before the shuddering emotional onslaught of the Romantics at the end of the 18th Century. The same thing happened to pop when rock 'n roll first charged the solar plexus. To compare opera's first great master, Monteverdi (17th C) with Gluck (18th C) over a hundred years later is to consider two ends of a logically pleasing developmental arc.
Yet there is emotional depth in even the earliest operas. The fact that Monteverdi took the story of Nero and Poppea for his last and greatest opera showed a willingness to take on historically accurate human frailties rather than the mores of mythological gods and monsters. Although it takes a leap of the imagination still to see murderous Nero sung by a slight mezzo-soprano, Lucia Cirillo, in the Glyndebourne Festival production currently on tour.
Transplanted to a 1930s Italy, we can read the dictator as a proto Mussolini - all slicked down hair and puffed up vanity. Christiane Karg's Poppea was out sung and out performed by Louise Poole's slighted and murderous Empress Ottavia. While the chicly minimal set - little more than a series of heavy red drapes (symbolizing blood and love) created palaces and bathrooms with simple rearrangements. For a touring production this feels neat and mobile. For a more permanent production its unrelenting simplicity is underwhelming.
A note on Glyndebourne itself. This was my first time. Thankfully there weren't the penguin-suited opera toffs as this was out off season, but the rolling grounds and the round elegance of the theatre itself conjured a quieter kind of magic. I was smitten. For the theatre itself is simple and intimate and was obviously developed by those for whom the art of opera itself is paramount rather than as a crass paean to snobbery. It is a place designed for art.
Choreographer Pina Bausch once said, 'I'm not interested in how people move, but in what moves them.' What obviously moved her in 1974 was the limpid beauty of Gluck's opera Iphigenie auf Tauris against which she created a full length ballet where her signature motifs the hand clenched staggers, the tossed hair of a lead woman both troubled and seductive and the intsensity and precision of her groupings conjure the horror/comic paintings of Paula Rego. Bausch was a unique choreographic artist (she died in 2009) whose works are as much theatrical happenings, art pieces - calling them dances diminishes their absorbing power. This use of a late baroque opera requiring a full orchestra, soloists and chorus shows her pushing choreography into unlikely but rich territory. Would Mark Morris have had his love affair with the purity of the baroque (in his case, Handel) without this ground-breaking innovation from Bausch?
Or, in fact, would we even be seeing 'Poppea' with Bausch and her ilk's audacity 40 years ago.