Poppea in Kiel

Like many other European opera houses and theaters, the one in Kiel was built in the first decade of the 20th century. Construction began in 1905 and was completed in 1907, when the opera house was inaugurated with a performance of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.

(My father was born in 1905 and my mother was born in 1907, so I’m always interested in what went on in those years. 1905 was the year when Albert Einstein published his four Annus Mirabilis papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, Special Relativity and the mass-energy equivalence E = mc2. 1905 was also the year when Richard Strauss came out with his opera Salome. 1907 saw the world premieres of several operas such as Ariane et Barbe-bleu by Paul Dukas and A Village Romeo and Juliet by Frederick Delius, both of which I have seen in fine productions at the Frankfurt Opera, as well as operettas such as Die Dollarprinzessin by Leo Fall and Ein Walzertraum by Oscar Straus.)

The unusual thing about the opera house in Kiel is that it is made mainly of bricks, with only a bit of stone trimming and four stone columns between the entrance doors. The use of bricks for the façade was intended to give the building a distinctive ‘northern’ appearance, since Kiel is one of the northernmost cities in Germany and does not have any stone quarries nearby, but lots of clay for making bricks.

City hall tower and opera stage tower

Even the stage tower of the opera house is made out of bricks. The building on the left in this photo is the city hall, which was built at around the same time. Both buildings were badly damaged during the Second World War, and were re-built in a simplified form in the 1950s. The reconstructed opera house was re-opened in 1953, again with a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Seating in the Kiel opera house

The interior of the Kiel opera house was re-built in the ‘new modern’ style of the 1950s, since the original art deco (Jugendstil) interior had been completely destroyed by the wartime bombings. The main auditorium now seats around eight hundred spectators. Kiel was my sixty-seventh German opera house, out of the sixty-nine I have been to so far.

Foyer of the Kiel opera house

The opera I saw in Kiel was L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) by Claudio Monteverdi, from the year 1642. This is an opera that I had seen several times previously in three different productions. The first was in Stuttgart in 1999, staged by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. The second was in 2000 (revived 2005) at the Frankfurt Opera, staged by Rosamund Gilmore, and the third was in 2014 at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt, staged by Ute M. Engelhardt. (Both Rosamund Gilmore and Ute M. Engelhardt have come as featured guests to my opera appreciation courses in Frankfurt.)

Program booklet

Opera was an invention of the Renaissance, starting around the year 1600. For the first four decades, most operas were based on stories from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, which is logical considering that the Renaissance was striving for a ‘re-birth’ of Greek and Roman antiquity. But in 1642 Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea broke with that mythological tradition by telling a story of people who had actually lived, such as the Roman emperor Nero (Nerone in Italian), his wife Octavia, his friend Ottone, the philosopher Seneca and Ottone’s beautiful wife Poppea.

There is a brief prologue, however, in which the goddesses Fortuna (luck) and Virtù (virtue) argue about which of them has more power over human beings. They are interrupted by Amor (love/lust), who proceeds to demonstrate that he (or she, since Amor is played and sung by a woman) has more power over humans than the other two combined.

On the level of the second balcony in the Kiel opera house

Forty-five minutes before showtime the dramaturge Ulrich Frey gave an introductory talk in an alcove on the level of the second balcony, where several rows of chairs had been set up to accommodate about sixty people. He spoke extemporaneously, without notes, just standing with a microphone.

One of the first things he pointed out was that in his program booklet he had added the abbreviation “u.a.” after the composer’s name. The “u.a.” in this case means unter anderen, which in English would be ‘among others’. This is because Monteverdi was 75 when he wrote Poppea, and he had some talented students and assistants who may well have helped him with parts of it, particularly Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), who went on to write forty operas of his own and become one of the most prominent of the second-generation opera composers. (I have seen two of Cavalli’s operas so far, Giasone at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt in 2007 and L’Eliogabalo in Dortmund in 2011.)

In the program booklet for Poppea in Kiel, the orchestra conductor Alessandro Quarta is quoted as saying: “I believe the famous final duet ‘Pur ti miro’ is by Cavalli, but of course I have no documentary proof. Actually, I am more interested in the fact that it is one of the outstanding compositions in the history of music, and not so interested in deciding who composed it.”

Orchestra pit in the Kiel opera house

The orchestra for Poppea was divided into two parts. On the right (as seen from the audience) was the Basso Continuo section, consisting of three lutes, one baroque harp, one baroque cello, one double bass and one cembalo. The second cembalo in the photo was for the conductor, Alexandro Quarta, who sat down and played along with the Basso Continuo in some passages. On the left side of the orchestra was a string section consisting of ten or twelve violinists, violists and cellists. Unusually, there were no wind instruments in this production, not even a recorder or baroque flute.

In his introductory talk, the dramaturge Ulrich Frey mentioned that the Baroque era in music (roughly 1600 to 1750) is sometimes referred to as ‘The Age of the Basso Continuo’. He said that for the string players — those who are not in the Basso Continuo section — this kind of opera is an unusual experience, because in most operas they are the ones who play more or less constantly, but in Poppea they have long pauses (like the trombones and trumpets in later operas) and only join in to highlight some of the more dramatic scenes, while the Basso Continuo provides the continuous musical foundation for the entire piece.

Applause after Poppea in Kiel

L’incoronazione di Poppea has a happy end, at least for Nero and Poppea, who celebrate their love in a beautiful duet after they have married and she has been crowned as the new empress. Of course it is not such a happy end for some of the other characters who have been murdered, exiled or forced to commit suicide, but their plight seems to have been forgotten for the moment.

The performance in Kiel was excellent, both scenically and musically, and received enthusiastic applause.

This is my 550th blog post here on operasandcycling.com.

My photos and text in this post are from 2019.

See more posts on the composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).
See also: Sixty-nine opera houses in Germany.

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