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Danielle de Niese as Poppea
19 Aug 2008

Prom 18 — L’Incoronazione di Poppea

Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s annual appearance at the Proms is always an eagerly-awaited event, but there is a varying degree of success with which the productions adapt from a full staging at Glyndebourne to a semi-staging suitable for the small platform and cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall.

Prom 18 – L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Glyndebourne Festival

Danielle de Niese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Arnalta), et al., Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Emmanuelle Haïm (cond.)

Above: Danielle de Niese as Poppea
All photos by BBC/Chris Christodoulou


Richard Jones’s production of Macbeth last year, whose big blocks of set and full-chorus choreography didn’t made it to the Proms, ended up a shell of its former self, and the voices that had sounded impressively powerful in the intimate Sussex theatre were, if not lost, then at least diminished in effect when transferred to the Hall.

The fact that Robert Carsen’s production of L’incoronazione di Poppea was relatively austere to begin with, starting off at Glyndebourne with little more on stage than a big red curtain, meant that it was destined from the start to transfer successfully to the Proms, in a semi-staging by Bruno Ravella.

Alice Coote as NeroneAlice Coote as Nerone

The central relationship between Nerone and the upwardly-mobile sex kitten Poppea was portrayed quite unconventionally. The two began the opera drunk with lust and longing for one another, but as the drama progressed, it was clear that Nerone was gradually becoming aware that Poppea’s lust for power and position had overtaken any genuine love towards him. His resentment grows to the point that as he promises to make her Empress, he barely stops himself from striking her – and though he still cannot resist her, most of the final duet was sung from opposite sides of the stage, with the two hardly looking at one another. Poppea gets what she wanted, but for Nerone it’s an empty celebration.

As thought-provoking as it was to see their relationship from that angle it isn’t a concept that’s borne out by the music. From the very beginning, we are told in no uncertain terms that it is going to be a victory for Love over both Virtue and Fortune, and at the end the sinuous intertwining lines of ‘Pur ti miro’ are clearly a musical evocation of a couple united in erotic love. Though historical sources relate that Nero later killed Poppaea by kicking her in the stomach while pregnant, this is not something that casts a premonitionary shadow over Monteverdi’s score. It is not even an idea which sits well within this staging, given the constant presence of Cupid (Amy Freston) as a sort of master of ceremonies.

In other respects it was a lively performance, with the comic episodes brought off really sharply. The two Nurses were both sung by men in drag – Poppea’s nurse Arnalta was the larger-than-life tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, while Ottavia’s nurse, sung by counter-tenor Dominique Visse, was a more subtle creation, all pursed lips and disdaining looks. The interchange between the Page (Lucia Cirillo) and the Damigella (Claire Ormshaw) was brought vividly to life.

Poppea_Glyndebourne_Proms1.pngScene from L’Incoronazione di Poppea

Musically, Emmanuelle Haïm and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment never let the lengthy score drag, and the cast was very strong, with Alice Coote’s smoky-voiced Nerone particularly striking. Besides Coote, the other vocal highlight was Tamara Mumford’s warm-voiced, impassioned Ottavia, even if Nerone’s complaint about her ‘barren frigidity’ raised a laugh thanks to Mumford’s advanced stage of pregnancy. The role of Poppea seems to lie well for Danielle de Niese’s soft-grained soprano, and she looks wonderful although she does have a tendency to overact. Only Paolo Battaglia, as Seneca, sounded dry and uneven, though I did find myself wondering, given the forces – a chamber orchestra and smallish voices – quite how successful I would have found the performance if I’d been sitting up in the rear of the Circle or standing in the Gallery.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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