11 Oct 2013
The Coronation of Poppea, ETO
James Conway’s production of Monteverdi’s final masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea was
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
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.
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.