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Claudio Monteverdi
05 Feb 2006

Body and Soul - A New “Poppea” in London

Monteverdi’s great work, “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” in a “semi-staged” format, has been chosen to showcase the talents of some exciting young singers and musicians in London recently as the first part of an ambitious project aimed at a more holistic approach to singing opera.

Known as “Il Corpo Cantante” or, less felicitous in English, “the Singing Body”, this project is the brainchild of Ashley Stafford who combines his experience as singer, teacher and osteopath to explore and give singers “a clearer insight into the specific ways in which the physical nature of singing relates to the whole body …. and to explore the links between our imaginative feel for music and the body’s way of transforming that desire …..into creative expressive reality.”

Today’s professional opera houses demand an ever-higher synthesis of both vocal and dramatic artistry - and young singers ignore this at their peril. So the project also aims to give young singers with ambitions as soloists a chance to experience and become better aware of the links between the physical, mental and emotional demands of singing at a professional level. This latter goal was much in evidence at the group’s “Poppea” where the demands of the small but elegant space at the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London were obvious. The singers had to adapt to low stage just feet from the audience, with only a wooden pulpit structure behind them to be climbed to give occasional height when required by the drama. They also had to enter and exit down the sides in full view of the hall’s packed seats. Some of the singers coped better than others with this rather exposed situation. The excellent small ensemble of 8 musicians, led incisively and elegantly from the harpsichord by the experienced Marco Ozbic, musical director and fellow-creator of the project, were centred at the front of the main aisle - close enough to enable study of both their music and bowing technique by some patrons. Noticeable for his eloquent playing was cellist Simon Wallfisch, and first violin Emma Parker also impressed with a sympathetic ear for the idiosyncrasies of this music.

Marco Ozbic also approached the well-known problem of paucity of orchestration left to us by an ageing Monteverdi (or his assistants) in a positive way. The enigma of the sparse instrumental music in “Poppea” is one of the major difficulties that modern interpreters face as, apart from some unspecified ritornelli, nearly all solo vocal parts are accompanied only by continuo. Ozbic thinks this seems at odds with the colourful instrumentation found in Monteverdi’s earlier operas, and so has compromised very successfully by adding instrumental lines in suitable places that helped produce a most lively and dynamic support for the singers and dramatic action.

However, it became obvious very quickly that there was a significant variation in levels of opera performance experience among the singers; some like Helen Court (sop. Poppea) and Andrew Tortise (tenor, Lucano, soldier and Seneca’s friend) showed that experience by an easy confidence on stage coupled with expressive and technically assured singing. Court in particular was impressive in her characterisation of the conniving Poppea - just the right degree of knowing manipulation without undue over-emphasis.

Others, less experienced but seemingly with plenty of stage confidence already coupled with real vocal talent, such as Charlotte Tetley (mezzo-sop, Ottavia), Revital Raviv (sop.Virtu/Drusilla), James Armitage (ct, Arnalta) and Daniel Keating-Roberts (ct, Amor) seemed to relish the dramatic opportunities that Monteverdi offers. Tetley in particular has both a dramatic soprano voice and stage presence to match. Keating-Roberts has an unusually strong and characterful countertenor which, coupled with an eye for comedy, gave indications of a natural talent in the manner of a Visse or Robson.

Of the less experienced performers, Calvin Wells’ performance as Nerone caught the eye. It is rare for a countertenor, even a high one, to sing this role at pitch, as the composer wrote it; there is much above the staff and it imposes some quite tricky technical demands. It is in fact more of a “male soprano” role, but Wells certainly had the vocal resources to match it, and as he grew out of his understandable nerves and into the character of the emperor in the second and third Acts, one began to hear more clearly what a promising talent he is, given that he will absorb more stagecraft with experience.

More polished, if lacking a little in volume and “bite”, was countertenor Andrew Pickett’s noble and affecting Ottone, well drawn and sympathetic. Timothy Dickinson’s warm and rounded bass-baritone dealt with Seneca’s sonorous low passages with ease although like Wells, he was lacking somewhat in actorly technique at this stage of his career. Lucy Page, Thomas Herford, Gregory Hallam and Elizabeth Graham all acquitted themselves well in the smaller roles with Page switching roles very effectively between Fortuna and a page boy.

A full house gave warm applause to an ambitious production that achieved its goals on all levels.

© S.C. Loder 2006.

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