Songs for a mad emperor: Sarah Toth’s Nero Monologues

Sarah Toth’s Nero Monologues is a pastiche opera, or pasticcio: this is a recognised form of opera making, used by Handel among others, where rather than writing an entirely fresh score, a composer collates (some might smirkingly say today ‘curates’) a selection of other people’s music, organising the chosen arias or passages to illustrate a specific story or theme. Handel might turn to pasticcio when he was pressed for time to produce a score for imminent performance, or when he wanted to dazzle his audience with a range of musical styles at once, recycling existing material of his own as well as that of others, often taking a certain libretto as a starting point. The resulting operatic ‘megamix’ might include music by Porpora, Hasse and Vinci (e.g. Catone in Utica). Toth’s modern pasticcio takes a deliberately multimedia approach to the act of opera composition, embracing the spoken word, as well as a wide range of song, all accompanied by a piano and string quartet, her embodiment of the troubling psychology of the emperor Nero further extended by a dancer on stage (Louis Ducasse), who seems to signify the most private – and darkest – parts of Nero’s dangerously insane brain. Toth herself takes the leading (and only singing) role of Nero.

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Sarah Toth (Nero). Photography by Lidia Crisafulli

An interesting set includes a rumpled daybed (whose toys and teddies are subjected to imaginary tortures or attacks by Nero), a misty mirror (signifying his inability to see himself, or actions, with true clarity), a desk, a washstand, and absolutely tons of knives (a must for any self-respecting psychopath). Toth builds up a credible image of Nero as a malevolent, unhinged fantasist, gleefully then tearfully teasing himself with daydreams or memories (with this Nero, both bleed tantalisingly into one another) of his killings of Poppea, symbolised by kicking a green silk dress, and his mother: as in Suetonius, Nero’s horrifying violence is only outdone by the extraordinary depths of his narcissistic self-pity. Nero and his dancer-doppelganger begin dressed identically in black trousers, white shirts and black braces, but Toth slips imperial purple or red silk gowns over her shirt, while Ducasse’s head is eerily swathed in black material, as if his head is anonymised, or missing: when a voice unexpectedly comes from this blanked-out space, it’s very much as if Nero’s inner psyche is suddenly speaking aloud. Eventually, it is Ducasse who plunges a knife into Nero, embodying both the idea that Nero’s insanity kills him, and that his suicide had to be assisted (Nero couldn’t quite bring himself to end his own life).

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Louis Ducasse (dancer), Sarah Toth (Nero). Photography by Lidia Crisafulli

Ironically, it’s Toth’s spoken word choices, a cycle of poems by Australian poet Geoffrey Lehmann purporting to be a translation of Nero’s own poetry, which are the strongest aspect of this piece. Lehmann’s mixture of aspirational artist, sexual deviant and delusional dictator perfectly captures Nero, and Toth’s spoken declamation is generally (though not always) clear; Ducasse also contributes a few lines, as well as some wonderfully controlled body popping which speaks of the fundamental dislocation of Nero’s peculiar, cruel inner world. Sadly, Toth’s poor diction while singing prevents much of the music being as effective, although the weird musical spectacle of Toth singing only Nero’s lines from Monteverdi’s “Pur ti miro”, turning a love duet into a one-sided, fractured expression of lust, is profoundly unnerving.

Rating: 2 stars

Reviewed at the Bridewell Theatre, London on 8 August 2017

Part of Opera in the City Festival

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