Claudio Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea

17, 22/05 > 20:30
19/05 > 18:00
20/05 > 15:00


On the one hand there is the baseness of powerful low-lifes, written by Busenello. On the other is the soaring and sublime music by Monteverdi. A farcical and subversive libretto versus musical lyricism of the most refined kind. Charlie Degotte is taking on the best known masterpiece by the man who invented opera. “It is a masterpiece of absolutely formidable cynicism, so it’s very modern.” An anarchist to the core, this director uses elements he has picked up from comic strips and the scathing insolence of Belgian surrealists. In 2000, he treated Brussels to exhilarating revues: Historique, Panique, Arabique and Lyrique. In 2001, working with composer and musician, Baudouin de Jaer, and his arrant actors, he is making a theatrical debut into the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts’ Monteverdi cycle.

Direction: Charlie Degotte

Music: Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea

Musical direction: Baudouin de Jaer

Actors: NN

Set design: Johan Daenen

Lighting design: Marc Defrise

Costumes & props: Amalgames

Producer: Xavier Schaffers

Production: KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

Presentation: Théâtre 140, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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The action takes place in a climate of palace intrigues, struggles for influence, love and secret, fleeting affairs, where those who have power are idle, blasé and slaves to their fancies. It is a story where the good of the nation comes second to private interests. It is a darkly humorous scenario, in which virtue, justice and morality are happily flouted to feed the masters’ appetites, assured as they are of servile complicity. Is this biting satirical comedy? It could well be, were it not for the presence of death stalking them, were it not for the music that rejects the opportunity to judge these characters, making up for them, almost excusing them by giving them a paradoxical purity. L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea) is the first opera to abandon angels, gods and demigods for real people of flesh and blood.

A realistic, political and domestic drama, the work offers a vision without illusions of man and the world. The jester grins unpleasantly at the tragic abysses presented. There are no limits to their delight in power. The life and death of their subjects is decided between the royal sheets. Composed during the Baroque period of anxiety, nobility is put forward only in conjunction with its opposite. It was conceived in 1642 in Venice. Busenello wrote one of his most daring and ‘Shakespearean’ librettos. Its mood, the heroes and disasters, are honed musically – and breathtakingly – by Monteverdi.

Much has since been written about L’Incoronazione di Poppea. It was thought that the full version lasted 4 hours, but there are two different manuscripts – one found in Venice, the other unearthed in Naples – that were thought to be genuine, before it emerged that they were ‘copies’ immediately arranged from an original score that has been lost for ever. Since then, everyone has been ‘free’ to rearrange the pieces of a jigsaw whose original version remains unknown – even freer now that it is known that Monteverdi was not the only person behind his most famous opera. He was 75 when Poppea was written, overseeing a group of composers and supervising their work. He left the detail to his followers, reserving for himself the composition of major scenes and the overall production of the work. Each new production ofL’Incoronazione thus ends up creating its own version, with its own orchestration, scenario and editing.

In 1998, when the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts began its Monteverdi cycle, the Beursschouwburg offered festival-goers a nocturnal programme, a cheeky and fun accompaniment to the evenings of contemporary creation at the Festival. The Beurs managed to tempt Charlie Degotte, who accepted the challenge of offering the public a version ofL’Incoronazione di Poppea after a timed rehearsal period of only 12 hours. In no time at all the director mobilised a group of actors, singers and musicians to work on a reduced score –a ‘best of’ Monteverdi’s lyrical successes. The acts were clearly less lyrical, the roles of schemers shared out between actors, performers of a much reduced Busenello scenario with Poppea using similar tactics to Cicciolina to win his campaign! From the point of view of understanding the story and its meaning, this version was considered to be a pretty fair attempt, but theatrically it needed a little more refinement. Furthermore, as both the audience and artists had little opportunity to really enjoy this little taster, why not take the time in 2001 to reinvent the refreshing taste and turn it into a more substantial dish? And this time it could have its own place in the Festival’s Monteverdian cycle.

Charlie Degotte’s requirement was to increase rehearsal time fivefold - to one week! In any case, his journey in theatre began with short productions, a passion for theatre and no money for creating longer productions. He found it better to be brief than to over-stretch himself by expecting a lot. He thought it better to be compact than to hang around waiting for funds to appear. “Leaving INSAS, the institution that declared me fit to create productions, I invented a very simple method for myself. I took an existing synopsis, or one I had developed myself, and concentrated hard enough to envisage the course of dramatic action in real time. The curtain rises, a bit of this and that, it ends, then darkness. My first productions lasted not more than 20 minutes. Only as it is no good doing harm to yourself, I soon realised that the concept of a frame could be useful, like those you find in comic strips. Each square offers a synthesis of a scene, an important event, expressing time and the mood of what is going to take place. Putting five squares one after the other usually gave me a performance lasting one minute.” He has obviously inherited his visual imagination from his father, the creator of the Belgian comic strip Flagada and his volatile bikers.

“A performance lasting 10 minutes is fine, but how far can you take it?” With Louise de Neef, a producer of music, dance and cinema, Charlie began his famous Lundis/Maandagen (Mondays), “multi-media and multi-cultural evenings”, where he got into the habit of combining all the fine arts imaginable (song, cinema, mime, dance, theatre…) and relishing how they worked together. Among his collaborators were Claude Semal, Didier Odieu, Philippe Tasquin, Jaco van Dormael, teenagers from CREAHM (actors in Le Huitième Jour), Michel Carcan, Patrick Beckers, Nina De Goeyse, Alexandre von Sivers and many more.

“My first intention with my work is to create laughter. I am sad, therefore funny, and that’s all there is to say about it.” Charlie Degotte is a ‘theatrical humorist’. He is also an amazing collector – very few people could do what he did and attract such an amazing array of talent from all fields at such short notice. We owe him some unforgettable highlights in theatre, including Yzz, when he agreed to present all Shakespeare’s 36 plays and 1,703 characters in one hour and twenty minutes, and Il n’y a aucun mérite à être quoi que ce soit, a homage to his mentor, the surrealist Belgian poet Marcel Mariën. In the wake of revues he began with Claude Semal at the Théâtre Le Café, which they co-founded, Charlie ended the year 2000 with no fewer than four revues where he brought together some 200 actors, dancers, writers, mime artists and musicians – Revue Historique at the Théâtre National, Arabique at the Halles de Schaerbeek, Panique at the Théâtre de Poche and Lyrique at the Chapelle des Brigittines. In them he demonstrates the hilariously intelligent art of setting our small world’s taboos and excesses on edge, revealing their brazen extravagances.

“I discovered L’Incoronazione di Poppea by chance. As a man of the theatre, I began by reading the libretto. Its scenario suited our ‘stupidities’ very well. The last scene, where the vile murderers Nerone and Poppea perform a touching duet conveying their elation at their triumphant ‘love’, filled me with enormous joy. What subversion! Then I listened to the music and found it even more wonderful, with a cynicism that is absolutely formidable and therefore very modern. In 1998 when we first tackled the work, I realised one thing that gave me great pleasure: our humour didn’t destroy the music’s lyricism, but the very clever music enhanced it – the baseness of these low-lifes was embellished with refinements and moods! For May 2001, we are going to start working again on reducing the score with musician and composer Baudouin de Jaer – he and I have already had some great adventures together. This will then lead to a condensed re-writing of the libretto and to casting. The actors’ imaginativeness will be brought to the party. I’m used to not drawing up everything in advance. I don’t want performers who seem to be made from polystyrene, involved in irreversible decisions on costumes, scenery etc. They’re all used to thinking about things at home, then turning up to rehearsals with their suggestions. Over the course of a week, the acting will amaze us all, the individual frames will appear, the scenery will emerge, then the costumes, and last of all, theatre.”

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