Barrie Kosky inaugurated his tenure at the Komische Oper in 2013 with a marathon performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and L’Incoronazione di Poppea seen back-to-back. The Monteverdi Trilogy kicked off at 11am with Orpheus’ wedding festivities and ended at 11pm with Poppea’s coronation. It was quite an opening statement. Holding together these distinct stagings is the figure of Amor, a character common to the three productions (a dramaturgical choice that was a departure from Monteverdi, since it involved switching out La Musica from L’Orfeo).
The trio not only features new stagings by Kosky himself but creative and largely successful new orchestrations by the Uzbeki-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. Despite agile new translations by Susanne Felicitas Wolf (joined by Ulrich Lenz for Ulisse), however, these foundational works suffer from being presented in German.
L’Orfeo is the most crowd-pleasing and exuberant of the bunch, beginning on an energetic note with a bright and wondrous production that featured a bevy of half-naked extras that danced across the extension that circles the orchestra pit. Kosky sets the work in a verdant jungle-like forest, filled (sometimes a bit too busily) with mythical beings and animals. Kats-Chernin outfits the continuo with an accordion, a bandoneón (a type of concertina popular in Argentina), a cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer used in Eastern Europe and Greece) and a djoze (a four-stringed Iraqi instrument). Together, they often give the music a propulsive, jazz and Klezmer inspired step. Most of this is welcome, although the distracting accordion obliggato to Orpheus’ lament is misjudged.
Ulisse is more paired-down, with the focus more squarely on the characters and the drama. Kosky covers the orchestra pit and arranges the musicians around the sparse set depicting a small field (an odd choice given that Ithaca is mountainous). The chamber-like nature of the production, and the reduced musical force, often makes the work seem like a conversation piece. Alongside classical and baroque instruments, the continuo here includes an oud (a Syrian lute) and a 21-string West African bridge harp called a kora, which occasionally lends the music too much spice.
Poppea is the most ambitious installment, as well as the most problematic. Working off the libretto’s cynicism and its collection of morally ambiguous protagonists, Kosky delivers a grim and cinematically bold staging that is marred by violent and sexual excess. Kosky tips the balance in the direction of high camp to the point that his vision of Imperial Roman decadence seems informed both by “Fellini Satyricon” and “Rocky Horror.” The continuo for this debauch includes banjo, electric guitar and synthesizer, which surprisingly manage to render the music convincingly without calling too much attention to themselves.