Michael Hersch: 'Poppaea'. © 2024 New Focus Recordings


The Tragedy of Rage

JOHN DANTE PREVEDINI listens to Michael Hersch's opera 'Poppaea'

'... a mirror unto humanity and the mechanisms by which some of its darkness traits operate.'


Poppaea is the recent release from New Focus Recordings of a one-act opera in twelve scenes composed by Michael Hersch on a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann. The 2019 opera, commissioned by Wien Modern and ZeitRäume Basel, is heard here in a live recording of a 10 September 2021 performance at Don Bosco Basel in Basel, Switzerland. The performance features the Ensemble Phoenix Basel under the baton of Jürg Henneberger with direction by Markus Bothe. The opera examines the quasi-historical tale of the Roman emperor Nero and his ill-fated relationship with his two wives, Octavia and Poppaea, portrayed respectively by tenor Steve Davislim, mezzo-soprano Silke Gäng and soprano Ah Young Hong. Three additional characters - the Handmaidens - are portrayed by Svea Schildknecht, Vera Hiltbrunner and Francisca Näf, and the opera features the Ensemble SoloVoices in the role of the Chorus. The release is available in a two-disc CD format as well as a digital album, and the substantial booklet includes an essay by Neronian history scholar Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, essays by various members of the production team (Hersch, Fleischmann, Bothe, dramaturge Bernhard Günther and set designers Heinrich Toews and Ioannis Piertzovanis), an interview with Ah Young Hong, a timeline of historical events informing the libretto, the English-language libretto itself and numerous photos from the production.

The Poppaea story is one which has been part of the Western operatic tradition for nearly its entire four-century history, a fact to which the Fleischmann-Hersch work consciously aims to respond. The new opera takes the action beyond where the plot of Monteverdi's influential 1642 opera left off, depicting how Poppaea ultimately meets a similar fate to that of her predecessor Octavia, despite Nero's promises. In addition, it attempts to retell the story from the perspectives of both Octavia and Poppaea. In so doing, as the various essays and interviews in the booklet attest, this project is meant to do more than simply revisit and stylistically modernize a classic story. It is an act of centering the perspectives of women in an artistic-historical narrative which has not traditionally centered those perspectives. By addressing both the relative lack of information about these women in the relevant Roman sources and the 'triumphant' Neronian treatment of the story in Monteverdi's setting, the collaborative team hopes to put the audience in a novel perspective of feeling systemically disempowered through whimsically cruel means - as Octavia and Poppaea themselves were.

The resulting opera, sonically speaking, is a one-hundred-minute continuous experience of violent explosiveness whose only respites are moments of quiet anxiety that the onslaught will soon resume again. Hersch achieves this sustained effect through the judicious use of a completely atonal - and frequently microtonal - sound world which remains at all times rhythmically, timbrally and dynamically unpredictable. The compositional material seems to be deliberately athematic, such that the audience is never given any sonic 'footing' upon which to make sense of what has happened or what might happen next. This, however, seems highly appropriate for the subject matter of the libretto, which constantly shifts between scenes of murder, torture, assault, traumatic flashbacks and vindictive public rage with no moments of peace or resolution in between.

Listen — Michael Hersch: Overture (Poppaea)
(fcr390 CD1 track 2, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2024 New Focus Recordings :

As Poppaea herself sings in the final scene, 'This world - You are released'. In other words, death itself is taken as the only release from the endless and powerless torment of her world. Likewise, the silence after the opera's conclusion is the audience's only release from its meticulously cacophonous musical expression.

Nonetheless, despite this sustained brutal emotional effect of the sonic composition, Hersch shows a remarkable sensitivity to the variety and freshness of detailed sonic parameters along the way. He makes full use of the timbral palette available within the chamber orchestra, including strings, piano, brass, woodwinds and percussion. Complex sound masses, for example, alternate with pointillistic textures, single sustained tones and various combinations thereof. From a harmonic standpoint, chromatic passages alternate with quarter-tone harmony, unpitched sounds and overtone-conscious sound masses bordering on the spectralistic. In short, this is perhaps just about as rich and varied a timbral palette as one could imagine using the given instrumentation through purely acoustical (non-electronic) means.

Listen — Michael Hersch: Scene I - New Life (Poppaea)
(fcr390 CD1 track 3, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2024 New Focus Recordings :

All of this compositional care on Hersch's part serves to help deliver a dramatic message which is at once confrontational and illuminating. It is also one which seems to successfully fulfill the goals expressed for the opera in all of the interviews and essays in the booklet. More than simply conveying the colossal degree to which the women in this Neronian world are subjugated, tormented and silenced, the opera arguably offers a keen and crucial insight into the nature of rage itself. The emperor, his wives, the handmaidens and the Roman mob all possess different degrees of social power. Nonetheless, they are united in being somehow impacted by the feral, impersonal and contagious force of rage, a force to which all of humanity is susceptible regardless of station or circumstance. The tragedy of rage is, perhaps, that it naturally tends to explode beyond the bounds of reason, even when the initial grievances that trigger it are completely reasonable. The enraged responses of the subjugated are thus all too often taken as convenient evidence of their supposedly 'unreasonable' perspectives, a vicious propagandistic cycle by which an unjust status quo is easily reinforced. Such is the state of affairs in Poppaea's world and, indeed, in many corners of our own.

Listen — Michael Hersch: Scene VIII - Claudia Augusta (Poppaea)
(fcr390 CD2 track 3, 0:00-0:30) ℗ 2024 New Focus Recordings :

In summary, Fleischmann and Hersch's Poppaea is an extremely ambitious, difficult and necessary opera that forces humanity to confront the way it mythologizes the dynamics of power and justice. This is by no definition an opera that is easy to experience, which makes the extraordinary care that went into its conceptualization, realization and album curation all the more impressive as a testament to the dedication of the entire team involved. This truly is a story of relentless ugliness, beautifully conveyed in high fidelity. Yet it is also an opera which I believe has the genuine power to transform the outlooks of receptive audiences. When experienced within the context of the crucial booklet materials, Poppaea reveals itself to be a mirror unto humanity and the mechanisms by which some of its darkness traits operate. It is, for this reason, an opera which I am very grateful to see in the contemporary repertoire.

Copyright © 12 June 2024 John Dante Prevedini,
Connecticut, USA



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