"This is the most immediate, modern, abrasive and wild opera that I know of. It says everything to me - it's just totally the most frightening and funny comment on politics and sex that there ever was. It's completely immediate, available comic material. To me, the greatest libretto, almost, that I know of. It's the most sophisticated take on people that I know of in music theatre, actually."
American director David Alden is discussing The Coronation of Poppea, that final masterpiece by Monteverdi (and others), first given in Venice in 1643 and taking as its subject the machinations of the Emperor Nero to ditch his wife Octavia in favour of his new love, Poppea.
Alden's staging for Welsh National Opera has already been aired in Munich - by longterm Alden supporter (and ex-ENO boss) Peter Jonas's Bavarian State Opera - but it's no cardboard copy revival that's coming to Cardiff. WNO audiences will be getting the benefit of the director's musical and dramatic second thoughts - more of the piece, and some alternative scenes to those seen in Germany.
And it's set in..? "Sort of, you know, modern Eurotrash Roman society, or something. But not really. It's a sort of modern take on baroque production. It's not Rome, particularly, although there are quotations from Cecil B DeMille film costumes from the Fifties. It's a kind of abstract, colourful, abrasive visual event."
Not exactly naturalism, then? "In real life, I like nature well enough," says Alden, turning to his forthcoming TV film of Schubert's Winterreise (starring Ian Bostridge). "But, as a theatrical image, nature is very uninteresting to me. I never put nature in my shows. I prefer imagery of nature. I prefer a glass of water to be the sea."
Alden first hit Britain, hard, at the invitation of fellow director David Pountney (then at Scottish Opera, later at ENO), who arranged a shotgun marriage with British designer David Fielding. The resulting rubber-wear Rigoletto had cast members agog at Alden's intimate knowledge of the musical score, and avidly retailing details of his staging to colleagues. There followed a sequence of 1980s shows - the infamous "chain-saw" Mazeppa, two big Verdis (Simon Boccanegra and A Masked Ball) - that flagshipped the dramatic and visual style of ENO's "Power House" years and divided audiences and critics alike. Working first with Fielding, later with others, Alden created a non-narrative, abstract and sometimes literally deconstructionist music theatre - a style with some roots in 1920s Russia, little known to British audiences but well travelled in Germany.
"My style is still continuing to be in development. Now I believe I'm getting out of my incredible angst period of real psychodrama productions." For example? "Oh, God, all my productions are basically very intense, sort of emotional outpourings of dark inner turmoil stuff - you know, Elektra, Tristan, A Masked Ball. These productions were usually about the central protagonist, and a kind of intense war within himself, and the whole world of the piece being a kind of projection of his own mind, or parts of his personality that were in conflict...
"Now, just the fact that I'm doing more comedies shows something. The Poppea is actually a very funny production. The piece is obviously serious - but it's seriously outrageous. Soon I'm doing Der Zigeunerbaron [Johann Strauss's Gypsy Baron] at the Vienna Volksoper. It's a beautiful piece, a romantic piece, but basically a light piece. Also, the design style that I'm working in now has moved on quite a bit from the simple, cut- down, `poor theatre' stuff I did before - into different uses of colour, different styles and a different feeling about why I'm doing it. As you develop and mature as a person, what you're interested in and the reason you're doing it changes."
Critical reception to Alden in Britain has encompassed real enthusiasm (Rigoletto, Boccanegra, Bluebeard's Castle), confusion (Masked Ball), horror (Mazeppa, Oedipus Rex), attempted indifference (Elektra, Damnation of Faust) and near-canonisation (Tristan) - often from the same writers. Does he deliberately set out to be iconoclastic?
"When I'm working with designers, then with conductor and singers, I'm never thinking about how people are going to read it. I'm just working to explore the pieces, express myself within them and just do it. Maybe unconsciously, part of my mechanism has to do with deliberately doing things differently in order to heighten the response of the audience, and allow them to hear the music and listen to the words in a different way. Part of theatre for me is surprise, and shock, and confrontation. Especially the opera theatre: it's a very extreme artform to begin with."
Alden's modus operandi may surprise some. "The very beginning of being able to direct a show is that you have to absolutely know the language and the music and the scoring - and know all the possibilities for a musical performance. You're then free to play against the score if you feel like it and not to be a prisoner of the music. I don't like to see on stage what you're hearing coming from the pit. That's not the point. The point is to have tension between the music and the visuals to a certain degree - creative tension - and to play around with the rhythms that you're given and to have a very creative, positive struggle going on between the text and the music. My biggest inspiration is always the music."
And in the rehearsal room? "I relish the collaboration with the conductor very much. Obviously some are much more in tune with the whole theatre process. Some don't really know how to watch rehearsals and don't understand that it's a work in progress, and that it may not be that day what it's going to be. I'm very outspoken in rehearsals about how I feel a scene might go musically - and I'm very happy when a conductor is very outspoken with me about what's going on theatrically...
"I devour every piece of information about a piece I'm doing - photographs of other productions, seeing other productions, videos. I avidly listen to absolutely as many performances - especially historical performances - as I can get my hands on. I have 30 Tristans... I travel all the time when I'm between shows to see other people's work. I live with the piece for a long time - just connecting with it emotionally and getting it inside my head. I really only start to make decisions when I have to. I prefer to keep the piece fluid and tabula rasa for as long as I can. I never know what I think a show should look like, or really what a show is about, until I start the dialogue with the designer."
Alden credits both the designers he first collaborated with - like Paul Steinberg (now designing Poppea) - and visits to Europe for "the education of the eye". In the mid-1970s, he was especially influenced by work he saw in Germany, by such directors as Walter Felsenstein (at the Komische Oper, Berlin), Joachim Herz, Harry Kupfer (whose Elektra for WNO was a particular eye-opener), Hans Neuenfels, Ruth Berghaus and Achim Freyer.
"All the usual suspects... A lot of us [directors] - me, David Fielding, Tim Albery, Tony McDonald, Tom Cairns and Martin Duncan - were influenced by the German school at that time. Our exposure to that helped us to try new things in England.
"Even though, in a sense, Germany is the heart of the modern opera movement, the companies in the British opera scene since I arrived - for all of the troubles and money problems and everything - have always been full of brilliant people willing to try something new. It's more expected in German theatres that the director will come in and do whatever he wants. The singers will know that they have to collaborate with the director - and that it's not going to be what they thought it was going to be, or what they did before. But that system breeds a kind of obedience and passiveness in people... In a way, it's good to have a bit of a fight, to work with people who can throw their own weight around when they feel like it."
`Poppea': tomorrow and Sat, New Theatre, Cardiff (01222 878889). `Winterreise': Channel 4 on 28 DecReuse content