Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
, 2007

This year's Edinburgh Festival includes a number of works by Claudio Monteverdi, of which this is sort of one. For Barrie Kosky's Vienna Schauspielhaus production presents that hitherto little-known collaboration, an opera by Monteverdi and Cole Porter (included on the Festival's theatre menu). The curtain rises on the goddess Amor singing "Love For Sale". Shortly thereafter, the emperor Nero disengages himself from a post-sexual tangle with his mistress Poppea, declaring that every time they say goodbye, he cries a little, whilst he absently half-throttles her. The tormented Ottone sets out to murder Poppea at the behest of his beloved Ottavia because he's got her under his skin. You get the idea. The more Monteverdi bits are, for the sake of it, sung in German rather than Italian, with the cast of seven accompanied by four musicians: a string trio and Kosky on piano, playing trebly clusters and glissandi which sound like urine falling on a crystal chandelier.

If this sounds like Edinburgh radicalism-for-the-sake-of-it, that is only half the picture. Kosky does palpably find and portray the moral vacuum both of Nero's court and of Monteverdi's last opera. The stage is virtually bare but for an occasional gilt chair and a squat-bath in which Nero murders his tutor Seneca (here, a mute whose signing Nero interprets). It is the characters' behaviour which tells us all, and that "all" is sometimes shocking. Poppea and nero engage in S&M games including the slicing off of an imperial nipple. When Ottone's murder attempt, aided by the doting Drusilla, is found out, Nero's punishment appears to include fisting each of them – Drusilla vaginally, Ottone anally – before banishing them. The final coronation duet with Poppea takes place in a nihilistic void: she is at last his empress, but what is left to reign over?

Yet this is one of those productions where one may understand all the directorial decisions and even appreciate them in a cold, rather disquieted way, but none of those responses translates into anything that might meaningfully be called enjoyment or even engagement. Kosky has taken up the challenge of Monteverdi and issues one of his own. Fine, but just because something may do us good it doesn't therefore have to taste bad.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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