As Opera North’s production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea draws near, we look at some other famous power couples throughout history, starting with our own Emperor Nero and Poppea…
In AD62, Emperor Nero married Poppea Sabina, just two weeks after divorcing his Empress Claudia Octavia. Historians of the period give wildly different counts of Poppea’s journey to the throne. According to Tacitus, Poppea was ambitious and ruthless. He reports that Poppea married Otho to get close to Nero and then, in turn, became Nero’s favourite mistress, while others believe she was motivated by genuine love. As a power couple, they have been immortalized in music through Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea.
There’s no denying that this power pairing have heated up the political landscape since Barack took office in 2008. The President has never been shy about publicly expressing his adoration for his wife and in his election night victory speech, gushed, ‘I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you too as our nation’s first lady.’
When it comes to modern day power couples, not many come close to these two. Jay-Z, one of the world’s most financially successful rap artists, met mega-star singer Beyoncé in 2003 and they married five years later. They welcomed their first child in 2012 and today are said to be one of showbusiness’ top-earning couples.
The love affair between two of France’s greatest philosopher’s spanned most of their lifetimes, but existentialism is not the cosiest of bedfellows. The relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir was complicated. They never married, had children or lived together, but were often cited as great influences on each other’s work and their relationship also involved sexual entanglements galore – material for de Beauvoir’s fiction.
Despite a rocky start that was shrouded in controversy due to the demise of Brad Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston in 2005, ‘Brangelina’ have proved their critics wrong and almost ten years laster are still together. They have recently married and have no less than six children together – not to mention two hugely successful Hollywood careers.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are now both private citizens, but they are still one of the most influential couples in the world. They have had well-documented ups and downs after Bill was at the centre of a media storm in 1998 following claims that he had had an affair. This ultimately cost the President his job, but the couple have remained together and have long supported each other’s successful political careers.
The legendary romance of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is another to have caused considerable controversy, not least due to widespread belief that the Japanese artist and musician was responsible for the break-up of The Beatles. However, the couple stayed together for 12 years, becoming well known for their musical collaborations and particularly their joint political activism, before he was assassinated in 1980.
Hughes and Plath are poetry’s posthumous power couple. The American poet Sylvia Plath and British literary giant Ted Hughes met at Cambridge and married soon afterwards, becoming the toast of Britain’s literary scene. Al Alvarez once speculated, ‘When two genuinely original, ambitious, full-time poets join in one marriage… every poem one writes probably feels to the other as though it had been dug out of his or her own skull.’
One of Hollywood’s most enduring love affairs, these two were together for 27 years and are regularly voted as having the best on-screen chemistry. Surprisingly, Tracy, despite being estranged from his wife, never divorced and so Hepburn and Tracy never lived together. When Tracy’s health began to deteriorate in the 1960s, Hepburn took a five-year break from acting and nursed him until his death.
Whilst to many the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are pretty much an institution these days, this regal power couple’s story is on par with some of the greatest romance novels. After first laying eyes on Philip Mountbatten, a then-Princess Elizabeth was said to have fallen in love with him on the spot. After staying in touch through letters, some years later the two finally married in 1947, resulting in one of the longest royal romances this country has ever seen.
Shakespeare gives us a power couple in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now also an opera by Benjamin Britten, with the King and Queen of the Fairies. Oberon and Tytania have incredible power and all manner of magic potions at their disposal, but have a very volatile relationship. Opening the piece with a fiery argument, by the close they are re-united and at peace with each other. Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed here at Opera North in Autumn 2013 (see below). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.
An opera within an opera?
Above: Designer Madeleine Boyd’s sketches for the design of Gastone as Escamillo.
La traviata Act II scene 2 takes place at Violetta’s best friend Flora’s house. Flora is throwing a dazzling party, and anyone who is anyone is there. During the proceedings, she calls for entertainment, and gypsies and matadors enter to perform for the guests, singing the chorus oi siamo zingarelle venute da lontano – “We are gypsy girls who have come from afar”.
Above: La traviata in rehearsal at Opera North, with Dan Norman as Gastone. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.
However, in our brand new production of La traviata, the gypsies and matadors have become characters from Bizet’s Carmen, and their performance a mini staging of the opera. Designer Madeleine Boyd explains, ‘Carmen was a relatively new opera at the time we have staged our production, and would have been very much in vogue. Therefore it seemed both plausible and appropriate that Flora would have invited performers and maybe some dancers form the Moulin Rouge etc. to re-enact a scene from the opera. When Gastone and his friends and the hostess herself join the performers, they become the easily recognizable principal characters of the opera – Flora takes on the role of Carmen, and Gastone becomes Escamillo.’
‘The costumes for the gypsies and matadors are modeled on costumes from a very early 1915 production of Carmen (see photograph). They are deliberately very theatrical and very stylized – there will be no mistaking who they are!’
Above: Designer Madeleine Boyd’s sketches for the ladies of the chorus as the Carmen theatre troupe.
Both the designs for and concept of this Carmen were influenced by this French & Saunders sketch, shared by the director Alessandro Talevi with the cast prior to rehearsing the scene for the first time. It is very heavily theatrical, exaggerated and highly entertaining - for performers and audience alike. Assistant director Matthew Eberhardt shares more about the scene in his live blog of a stage rehearsal here.
We caught up with La traviata’s designer Madeleine Boyd and put together this selection of influential images to give you a taste of the sights, shapes and colours you can expect to see…
'This photograph epitomizes the feel and mood we want to achieve at the opening of the opera – the party hosted by Violetta. There are very few photographs or paintings of actual opium dens or harems (for obvious reasons!) – most, including this image by Brassai which dates from the 1920s, slightly later than our period, were staged photographs. In these, the harem was romanticized and portrayed as something exotic, fascinating, and much more beautiful than the gritty, dirty reality. In our design, which you will see, we have tried to find a middle ground between these romanticized photographs and the gritty reality.’
'Setting La traviata in the Belle Epoque period allowed us to model Violetta on two particularly prominent courtesans of the period: La Belle Otero and Liane de Pougy. Both these women were not only part of the most elite and inner circles of society, but were quite literally whispering in the ears of politicians and crown princes, privy to their most intimate secrets, and as such were highly influential individuals. Therefore we have been able to place Violetta as a courtesan in a highly relevant context, and the designs for her are heavily influenced by the lavish, flowing, highly romantic and slightly scandalous Belle Epoque style of de Pougy and La Belle Otero.’
'In designing the backdrop for La traviata’s set, I started looking at Japanese artwork, as something that reflected the Western world’s preoccupation with ‘Eastern’ art, fashion, colours and culture at this point in time. I particularly looked for Japanese artwork that looked like smoke, so that, depending on the differing lighting states throughout the piece, the backdrop could appear to the audience as a dreamy silkscreen print, and later as the grimy, nicotine-stained back wall of an opium den.’
'The blue mosaic wall in this painting ‘The Snake Charmer’ (1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme heavily influenced the design for the floor of the set. Gerome was a key figure in the Parisian mid-Nineteenth Century art movement which was inspired by and which represented the Orient through Western eyes. This was ideal material, as we needed the floor to look both Harem-like and distinctively Parisian.’
'These next two images were particularly influential in the design of our La traviata. I was struck by the sense of solitude and isolation – it resounded with the isolation of Violetta as someone suffering from a fatal illness with no hope of a cure. I was also interested in the sense of outdoors and fresh, clean air embodied in both these images, and could envision Violetta searching out and drinking in the fresh air to try and relieve her congested lungs. Thus, as you will see, the opening of Act II has a distinctive outdoor feel, with a jetty similar to the one you see here (above) as the focal set piece.’
'This second image was the inspiration for the geometric structure of the whole set. The original brief from the director, Alessandro Talevi, was one set that could be re-invented and re-dressed for each scene of the opera – Violetta’s party, the two lovers’ country haven, Flora’s party, and lastly Violetta’s bedroom. The central block in this image inspired the idea of one key, central set piece that could be re-incarnated as required – thus the jetty of Act II has previously been Violetta’s bed – the focal point of the party, in Act I, becomes a roulette table for Flora’s party later in Act II, and finally, becomes a squalid death bed in Act III. The surrounding sea represents the floor of the stage, recreated in blue mosaic tile.’
Some initial costume sketches for the ladies of the chorus, who form a disarrayed mass of Violetta’s companions and opium smokers at the opening of the opera.
Some costume sketches for the men of the chorus. ‘We wanted to represent a whole cross section of society through the designs for the chorus - not just the elite. Throughout the piece, we are looking to emphasize in particular the hypocrisy of the men who mix with her when she was a celebrated figure and perceived as desirable, but abandoned and looked down on her when she lost her health and her beauty, and was dying.’
A montage of fabric swatches to represent the bright, oriental colour palette for La traviata.
Experience the real thing: La traviata at Opera North opens on 20 September 2014 - please visit out website to purchase tickets.
La traviata was also a significant influence on Baz Luhrmann’s musical film Moulin Rouge (2001) and follows the same basic plot.
Moulin Rouge tells the story of celebrated courtesan and star of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, Satine, who, though resisting at first, gives in to the unwavering love and devotion of a young poet/writer, mirroring the scenario of La traviata. Like Violetta, Satine learns that love can be true and idealistic, and something she is able to experience.
However, both romances are shattered by extenuating circumstances, and both Violetta and Satine selflessly sacrifice their own happiness for someone else’s sake. In Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge as in La traviata, the courtesan’s lover misunderstands the decisions she has made, believes she is unfaithful and throws money at her in payment for her ‘services’, cheapening the love they shared. Most strikingly, the heroine in both succumbs to the consumption that has been gradually weakening her, and tragically dies.
Interestingly, the iconic red dress that Nicole Kidman wore as Satine echoes how top fashion designer J Mendel imagined his Violetta to be, and how Lila di Nobili designed Violetta back in 1955, as worn by soprano Maria Callas.
Verdi had wanted to set La traviata in the present day, a ‘modern-dress’ staging, but it soon became clear that this was impossible. Opera was a very conventional art form and the subject matter of La traviata – Paris through the eyes of a courtesan - was just too shocking. It was also only five years since the death of Marie Duplessis, the famous courtesan and prototype for Violetta, making the subject even more controversial.
Even the supporters of Verdi were not immune to qualms about the content of La traviata. Abramo Basevi, an Italian musicologist, a contemporary of Verdi and the author of the first full-length study of Verdi’s output published in 1859, wrote:
'Verdi was unable to resist the temptation of setting to music, and so making more attractive and acceptable, a filthy and immoral subject, universally loved because the vice it represents is universal.'
Image above: Censorship was strict at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy, the place of La traviata’s premiere.