14 June. It is 4:15 p.m.; we’re at Aix-en-Provence; and the first part of rehearsal for Ted Huffman’s staging of Monteverdi’s opera L'incoronazione di Poppea is coming to an end. We enter silently, in the middle of a scene. On stage, Nerone and Poppea, the protagonists, are flanked by four singers. Our first impression is of the powerful encounter between the architectural-like symmetry of the four singer’s voices and Ted Huffman’s understated, yet warm, aesthetic. A feeling of serene force emanates from the singers, evoking the aloof tranquillity of Roman columns. The subdued mise-en-scène facilitates our ability to listen.
Soon, the lights come back on, and the distance maintained between imperial guards and young lovers is broken: personas are dropped, and the singers laugh among themselves. Now fully lit, this eighteenth-century theatre all’italiana, upholstered in red —which will be welcoming nearly 500 audience members per performance as of 9 July — in no way clashes with the artistic choices of the stage director, who has opted to use the space like a ‘black box’, that streamlined stage invented by theatre’s avant-garde in the early twentieth century. Voices rise everywhere; the singers aren’t the only ones taking a break. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., the second part of the rehearsal is nearly ready to begin. The stage crew return to their technical endeavours; and, below in the pit, on his claviorgan (a mix between harpsicord and organ), the assistant musical director and vocal coach Jacopo Raffaele, who is in charge of the musical aspects of the rehearsal, slowly turns the pages of his score. From backstage — from the entrails of the theatre — we can hear voices: the singers are returning.
Some adjustments are now made: Maud Morillon, the assistant stage director, is speaking to the musician, while Ted Huffman converses with the woman who, in just a few moments, will be playing Poppea once again. Jacquelyn Stucker is attentive and enthusiastic; we can sense that she truly relishes acting; she is delighted to be on stage, as is Jake Arditti (Nerone), who has just arrived. The two singers have forged a true bond. The rehearsal begins anew; the soprano’s and the countertenor’s voices rise, mix, and unite; they look at each other with love, as Ted Huffman, seated at the edge of the stage, watches on in silence. This is the final scene, the duet between Nerone and Poppea, the woman who is about to be crowned empress. The two singers are wonderfully charming, and the love they re-create between Nerone and Poppea is just as the libretto suggests it should be: amoral, and very beautiful.
When the scene has been performed once through, they go back over it, adjust it, explore the possibilities. On stage, three wildly-creative minds strive to ensure that everything is consistent at the subtlest of levels. There’s no music for the time being: it’s all about establishing the most legitimate link possible between text and movement, between the expression of love, its vocal incarnation, and its physical expression in the singers’ acting. And far from following the usual pyramidal approach between actor and stage director, this work is being done as a group. Ted Huffman listens, ponders, plunges again and again into a deliberative silence: it’s as if the scene is being played as much in his imagination as it is on stage.
As we observe this intricate work — the painstaking, ceaselessly-renewed tweaking — time seems to stand still. Only the lighting crew’s light checks remind us that time is still advancing. From an almost enchanted golden glow (a yellow light against the copper floor) projected onto the singers’ bodies, to a white light that casts a disturbing aura to everything in sight (props, bodies, each recess of the stage…), various hues, both warm and cool, and all intensities are tested. And while under the theatre’s gilded mouldings and extinguished chandelier, silent figures — sparsely lit, seated at tables set up on the main floor of the auditorium — are immersed in their scores, hard at work and apparently unaffected by the cheerful flurry on stage, we look on in amazement as a troublingly sincere scene is gradually being constructed before our very eyes.