11 Oct 2013

The Coronation of Poppea, ETO

James Conway’s production of Monteverdi’s final masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea was

first performed last November by students from the Royal College of Music. Now it is revived, at the same Britten Theatre, but by English Touring Opera, as part of its Venetian season. It made a still greater impression upon me than last year; whilst the earlier cast had sung well and deserved great credit, the professional singers of ETO seemed more inside their roles, as much in stage as purely musical terms.

Conway’s production holds up very well. Its perhaps surprising relocation of the action to a parallel universe in which a Stalinist Russia existed without the prude Stalin — ‘just the breath of his world,’ as Conway’s programme note puts it — provides a highly convincing reimagination of the already reimagined world of Nero. ‘Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me,’ Conway writes, ‘that this was a place in which Nerone might flourish, from which Ottone, Drusilla, Ottavia, and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare, persisting in belief in family (or some related ideal) even as it devours them.’ And so it comes to pass, from the Prologue in which La Fortuna, La Virtù, and Amore unfurl their respective red banners, setting out their respective stalls, until Poppea’s (and Amore’s) final triumph. Claustrophobia reigns supreme, save for the caprice of Amore himself, here dressed as a young pioneer, ready to knock upon the window at the crucial moment, so as to prevent Ottone from the murder that would have changed everything. Samal Black’s set design is both handsome and versatile, permitting readily of rearrangement, and also providing for two levels of action: Ottavia can plot, or lament, whilst Poppea sleeps. Conway’s idea of Poppea as an almost Lulu-like projection of fantasies in an opera whose game is power continues to exert fascination, and in a strongly acted performance, proves perhaps more convincing still than last time. Where then, the blonde wig had seemed more odd than anything else, here the idea of a constructed identity, designed to please and to further all manner of other interests, registers with considerable dramatic power. The seeping of blood as the tragedy — but is it that? — ensues makes an equally powerful point, albeit with relative restraint; this is not, we should be thankful, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or some other instance of Grand Guignol. Above all, the Shakespearean quality of Monteverdi’s imagination, unparalleled in opera before Mozart, registers as it must. One regretted the cuts, but one could live with them in as taut a rendition as this.

Michael Rosewell’s conducting had gained considerably in fluency from last time. I feared the worst from the opening sinfonia, in which ornamentation became unduly exhibitionistic — I could have sworn that I heard an interpolated phrase from the 1610 Vespers at one point — and the violins were somewhat painfully out of tune, my fears were largely confounded. It is a great pity that we still live in a climate of musical Stalinism, in which modern instruments are considered enemies of the people than the kulaks were, but continuo playing largely convinced and string tone, even if emaciated, at least improved in terms of intonation. For something more, we must return, alas, to Leppard or to Karajan.

Moreover, it was possible — indeed, almost impossible not — to concentrate upon the musico-dramatic performances on stage. Helen Sherman’s Nerone displayed laudable ability to act ‘masculine’, at least to the dubious extent that the character deserves it, and great facility with Monteverdi’s lines, even when sung in English. Paula Sides proved fully the equal both of Monteverdi’s role and Conway’s conception. Hers was a performance compelling in beauty and eroticism; indeed, the entwining of the two was impressive indeed. The nobility but also the vengefulness of Ottavia came through powerfully in Hannah Pedley’s assumption, her claret-like tintà a rare pleasure. Michal Czerniawski again displayed a fine countertenor voice as Ottone, engaging the audience’s sympathy but also its interest; this was no mere cipher, but a real human being. Much the same could be said of Hannah Sandison’s Drusilla, save of course for the countertenor part. Piotr Lempa has the low notes for Seneca, though production can be somewhat uneven, perhaps simply a reflection of a voice that is still changing. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Arnalta was more ‘characterful’ than beautifully sung, but perhaps that was the point. Pick of the rest was undeniably Jake Arditti’s protean Amor, as stylishly sung as it was wickedly acted. The cast, though, is more than the sum of its parts, testament to a well-rehearsed, well-c0nceived, well-sung production of a truly towering masterpiece.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Nerone: Helen Sherman; Seneca: Piotr Lempa; Ottavia: Hannah Pedley; Nutrice: Russell Harcourt; Lucano: Stuart Haycock; Liberto: Nicholas Merryweather; Poppea: Paula Sides; Arnalta: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Ottone: Michal Czerniawski; Drusilla: Hannah Sandison; Amor: Jake Arditti. Director: James Conway; Revival director: Oliver Platt; Designs: Samal Blak; Lighting: Ace McCarron. Old Street Band/Michael Rosewell (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, Wednesday 9 October 2013.